The Difference Between a Politician’s “Plans” and his Talking Points

I think Glenn Kessler gets maybe two things right in his column this morning about what constitutes a “plan” by a politician.

One is that there are times when a fact checker is better off just backing off and explaining a story without needing to award “Pinocchios” or whatever. The other is that there is, in fact, a difference between partisan talking points and a real, operative, policy commitment. At issue here is whether the White House has a “plan” to replace sequestration, and Kessler is right that “[I]n Washington, there are real plans and faux plans.”

Alas, it all goes badly wrong after that.

Kessler winds up, basically, endorsing what I’d call a supersized version of John Boehner’s talking point: that a “plan” is only a talking point if it’s unlikely to be enacted as is by the current Congress and President (Boehner settles for able to pass one chamber of Congress, allowing him to say the Democrats have no plan if Republicans in the Senate defeat something by filibuster).

By Kessler’s standard, the House sequestration replacement passed in the last Congress doesn’t count as a plan because only Republicans voted for it (and therefore it had no chance in the Democratic Senate or with Barack Obama. The sequestration replacement that Democrats proposed in the Senate last week doesn’t count, because Republicans successfully defeated it by filibuster. And Barack Obama’s plan doesn’t count because..well, apparently he hasn’t put enough public emphasis on the parts of it that Republican want him to talk about. Which is a pretty goofy.

In fact, the Boehner/Kessler standard, which says that any proposal is a mere talking point unless you have the votes to meet some arbitrary standard, is ridiculous:

Person 1. What do you want to do tonight?
Person 2. How about a movie?
1. I don’t want to go to a movie.
2. Fine. How about going dancing.
1. I hate dancing.
2. Go to a ballgame?
1. No, I’m not in the mood for that.
2. Fine — what do you want to do?
1. Why am I the one who always has to propose something?  You never have any ideas!

Now, it is absolutely true that sometimes a politician claims to have a proposal when all she has is a talking point.

How to tell the difference?

If it’s written down in sufficient detail, that’s a major indication that it’s a real plan.

If it’s been introduced as a bill or amendment, that’s a major indication that it’s a real plan.

If serious policy analysis have examined it and found it to be, well, possible to actually analyze, that’s a major indication that it’s a real plan.

If the people who claim to support it have actually voted for it in the House or the Senate, that’s a major indication that it’s a real plan.

(Oh, and: no, it doesn’t have to be unanimous to be a party’s plan. 52 of 55 Democrats voted for their sequestration replacement in the Senate, with Harry Reid switching to no for parliamentary reasons; it’s just silly for Kessler to say that lack of unanimity means that it’s just a talking point. Nor does the successful GOP filibuster against it make it any less of a plan).

Okay, that’s four things to look for. That still leaves plenty of judgement for any analyst trying to distinguish proposal from talking point. For example, budgets proposed by smaller House factions (or, for that matter, a single Senator) can still be “plans” rather than talking points even if they were crushed in a floor vote. Something sufficiently detailed may nevertheless be only a talking point…if the same people proposing it oppose those details and say they are just for illustration.

And, yes, it’s perfectly reasonable for analysts to discuss whether some politician’s plan is politically viable (that is, whether it can pass Congress and be signed into law as is), as opposed to whether it’s a real policy (that is, whether the proposal actually constitutes a public policy that could, if passed, actually be implemented). That seems to be what Kessler is getting at, but it’s a real mistake to confuse the two.

So: if a politician says he wants to balance the budget with spending cuts and furnishes no other detail or backup…that’s a talking point. If he has dropped a bill with detailed spending cuts that can be scored by CBO and that actually do add up the way he suggests…that’s probably a “plan.” Even if not a single other Member of Congress would vote for it — it’s a politically unrealistic plan, but still a plan.

Kessler is correct that a plan should count for something above and beyond the credit a party or politician should get for mere talking points. But the next step isn’t just to assess how politically viable a (real) proposal is; it’s also to assess how open to compromise. A party which insists as a matter of principle that it will never compromise may have plans, but unless they have the votes to pass them alone it doesn’t really matter. But that’s really getting far beyond John Boehner’s clearly false claim about the White House and the real differences between plans and talking points.

[Originally posted at A plain blog about politics]

Jonathan Bernstein

Jonathan Bernstein is a political scientist who writes about American politics, especially the presidency, Congress, parties, and elections.