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A guide: serious plans vs. talking-point ‘plans’

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Pete Marovich/Getty Images President Obama arrives at the Jefferson Hotel for a dinner with Republican senators on March 6.

“One [Republican] senator told us that he learned, for the first time, the actual cuts that the president has put on the table. Leadership hadn’t shared that list with them before.”

— reported in “First Read, NBC News,” March 7, 2013

Some readers have asked why we did not offer a fact check of House Speaker John Boehner’s statement on NBC’s “Meet the Press” that “even today, there’s no plan from Senate Democrats or the White House to replace the sequester.” Our colleagues at PolitiFact gave that statement a “Pants on Fire” rating, and readers were looking for some Pinocchios as well.

About 90 percent of the time, PolitiFact, FactCheck.Org and The Fact Checker reach virtually the same conclusions, but sometimes our findings diverge. That generally happens because we don’t necessarily fact check precisely the same statements or view statements in the same way.

In isolation, Boehner’s statement seems pretty far-fetched. But we chose to pass on a fact check because the host, David Gregory, immediately challenged Boehner’s comment as “not true” and described what the president has proposed. Gregory and Boehner then got into a definitional argument over what constitutes a plan, which in Boehner’s mind seemed to be a bill that had passed the Senate so negotiations could begin with the House.

Indeed, immediately after Boehner’s appearance, White House aide Gene Sperling appeared on the program to describe the president’s proposals. “This is a summary,” he said. “It’s on the White House Web site.”

We try not to fact check opinions, and that seemed to be the core of the debate between Boehner and Sperling about what constitutes a “plan.” (Moreover, we also thought we had found something more interesting to fact check at the time— a new ad campaign targeting Democrats by the National Republican Campaign Committee.)

Still, the comment (highlighted above)--reportedly made by an unnamed Republican senator as he emerged fromdinner with the president--demonstrates how uninformed lawmakers can be about the other side’s positions.

That’s because, in Washington, there are real plans and faux plans. Here, then, is a guide to when a “plan” is serious, based on The Fact Checker’s three decades of watching and reporting on Washington sausage-making.

The Facts

First of all, in today’s Washington, each party largely exists in its own echo chamber. Republicans talk to Republicans, Democrats talk to Democrats. They watch or listen to their own favorite television or radio shows, and read their own opinion columnists. They also listen to their leaders. So if Boehner says on national television that the president has no plan, then it’s likely he is also telling that to his troops. And then that sentiment is echoed on the House floor, and through conservative media outlets.

In bifurcated Washington, each side has its talking points, designed more to impress followers rather than convince political rivals. Small wonder, then, that a GOP lawmaker would be surprised to hear the president has some ideas on overhauling entitlement programs.

Boehner, for his part, is able to claim that the House passed “a plan” because the House rules are stacked in the Republicans’ favor. But that bill passed without a single Democratic vote — which means it is just a rhetorical “plan” with no hope of passage in a Senate controlled by Democrats. This plan exists largely so Boehner has a talking point — that he could claim that the House is serious and other side is not.

By the same token, just having “a plan” on a Web site is not really a plan either. The White House’s proposal contains a mix of tax increases and modest reductions in entitlement and other spending programs, allowing the White House to claim it has made such proposals. In effect, however, this is another talking-point plan.

The limited nature of Obama’s plan is demonstrated in the Senate, which essentially requires 60 votes for passage of most bills. At this point, Democrats cannot even muster the support of all Democrats, let alone any Republicans, for the president’s proposals.

What is needed to break through the party’s respective echo chambers? The answer, in almost all cases, is sustained presidential commitment.

Obama has made passing reference to some of these spending-cut proposals in news conferences, but he has never made them the centerpiece of a high-profile speech. By contrast, he repeatedly--and very publicly-- has stressed his interest in raising taxes on the wealthy. That’s why his ideas on entitlements remain a mystery to many Republicans--but they all know he wants to raise revenues.

The president’s outreach to Republican rank-and-file in the past week is a sign of seriousness, in that he is beginning to explain his ideas directly to the opposition.

However, the president has not directly taken on members of his own party; he also has not made the case for overhauling entitlement programs to the American people. Democratic lawmakers know that if the ideas just remain on a Web site, with little or no high-profile presidential push, they don’t have to take these ideas any more seriously than Republicans.

President Bill Clinton understood this instinctively. When he decided to back the concept of a balanced budget in 1995, he did so in a nationally televised address and gave his fellow Democrats little warning. That ensured huge headlines and forced Republicans — who then controlled both houses of Congress — to recognize that he was serious about offering an alternative. In other words, he broke through the echo chamber. Here’s how one news report put it:

Stunning his Democratic allies, President Bill Clinton last night unexpectedly unveiled a new budget that he said would eliminate the federal deficit in 10 years with less pain and sacrifice than Republican alternatives.
In a nationally televised address, the president said he decided to wade into the raging budget battle on Capitol Hill because “it’s time to clean up this mess.” While Clinton promised “there will be big cuts and they will hurt,” he stressed that his plan would not cut spending on education or control health-care costs by cutting benefits.
But Clinton’s decision was greeted with dismay and disbelief by congressional Democrats, many of whom had implored the president to wait until midsummer to offer an alternative, so that the full impact of Republican-proposed cuts in education, health-care programs and welfare had been digested by the American public.
“I think most of us learned some time ago that if you don’t like the president’s position on a particular issue, you simply need to wait a few weeks,” fumed Rep. Dave Obey of Wisconsin, the senior Democrat on the Appropriations Committee who has been waging a tireless battle against the Republican budget plans. “If you can follow this White House on the budget, you are a whole lot smarter than I am.”
One Democratic aide said: “People are stunned. He just blindsided the entire Democratic Party.”

The Bottom Line

We are not saying that a president has to necessarily take on his own party to demonstrate he is committed to his policy proposals. But readers can judge how serious a plan is by how hard either a president or party leaders reach across the aisle for support. In these partisan times, that almost always means making supporters in your own party uncomfortable.

As long as a plan passes just one chamber with no votes from the other party, or sits on a Web site with little overt presidential backing, it’s not really a plan designed to become law. Boehner and Sperling were arguing over plans aimed mainly at rallying their own troops. A real plan always requires a megaphone to reach across to the other party.

Update/Clarification: Political scientist Jonathan Bernstein offered a detailed critique of this column, which echoed various tweets and other comments. But clearly our point was not clear enough because we are certainly not endorsing the idea that something is not a plan unless it passes both houses of Congress or is even politically viable. The test, in a period of divided government, is whether a politician is willing to highlight uncomfortable facts about their proposal, even at the risk of alienating their own supporters. Just pointing to a plan on a Web site is not the same thing.

(Yikes, another critique. The Fact Checker was not trying to be a pundit. Seriously. Though at least one person thought this column made a “reasonable point.”)

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