The media are starting to paint a contrast between the Obama and McCain economic plans in terms of fiscal responsibility, pointing out that while “McCain promises to balance budget” (the headline of Mike Allen’s Politico article on Monday), “Obama won’t try for McCain’s budget goal” (the headline of Nedra Pickler’s AP analysis filed last night).
While deeper in, both articles express skepticism about Senator McCain’s ability to come through with said pledge, citing the Obama campaign as well as fiscal experts, it still seems that the opening lines and the first few paragraphs of each story–i.e., the most noticed parts–lean favorably toward Senator McCain, suggesting the winning (at least short-term) strategy with the press is to make a claim that sounds bold and impressive, even if it might ultimately be viewed as incredible.
The Cliff Notes take-away as you skim the openings of both stories is of a stark choice: A McCain Administration that would (make tough choices to) eliminate the budget deficit, versus an Obama Administration that would increase government spending (on “critical investments”).
The opening lines of the AP piece seem to almost bully Obama…
Barack Obama says John McCain’s plan to balance the budget doesn’t add up. Easy for him to say: It’s not a goal he’s even trying to reach.
Not only does Obama say he won’t eliminate the deficit in his first term, as McCain aims to do, he frankly says he’s not sure he’d bring it down at all in four years, considering his own spending plans.
“I do not make a promise that we can reduce it by 2013 because I think it is important for us to make some critical investments right now in America’s families,” Obama told reporters this week when asked if he’d match McCain’s pledge.
…and then goes on to suggest the stark choice voters face:
So what is more important in tough economic times? For the government to spend more to help hard-hit Americans or to eliminate a deficit that can lead to higher borrowing costs and slow the economy?
I find this contrast a bit misleading and unfair given that in reality, the Obama proposals for new SPENDING and new tax cuts aren’t necessarily more expensive than the McCain proposals for new spending and new TAX CUTS (and at this largely-theoretical point, could be even less expensive). It’s just that the Obama campaign is acknowledging that it’s a mathematical impossibility to both increase government spending and reduce the deficit, while the McCain campaign is claiming it’s not a mathematical impossibility to both cut taxes and reduce the deficit.
(Sidenote that really could be another post: By the way, acknowledging the difficulty in achieving these policy goals simultaneously doesn’t mean you have to abandon any of the goals. The Obama campaign continues to emphasize fiscal responsibility as one of their economic policy principles, and they stress that they honor that goal with specific plans on how they’ll pay for each of their new initiatives–i.e., that they follow “pay go,” at least relative to a baseline of current policy extended. As I’ve cautioned here before though, the definition of that baseline matters.)
As I said yesterday, just claiming you will eliminate the deficit, in four (or maybe eight?) years, doesn’t make you a deficit hawk. But the bold claim might be enough to have you play a deficit hawk in the media.
Meanwhile, admitting you can’t live up to the other guy’s claim, well, it kind of makes you look like a fiscal wimp.
So unfortunately, fiscal honesty doesn’t seem to pay, not with the press at least. We’ll have to see how it goes over with the voters.