Political Speak

by Brien Jackson

Following up on my last post, it occurs to me that the most obvious answer for the “discrepancy” between what Ezra Klein and David Brooks were told by anonymous sources inside the White House; they weren’t contradictory at all. Sounds like a stretch but consider the clips Greenwald uses to build his case. First, from Ezra:

What people at the White House have told me on Social Security — and what I wrote in the post she’s referencing — is that there’s no intention to touch Social Security in the foreseeable future. It’s not a priority and it’s not a political winner. . . . The problem, they say, is health care, not Social Security, and that’s where the White House is focusing.

And from Brooks:

Besides, the long-range debt is what matters, and on this subject President Obama is hawkish.

He is extremely committed to entitlement reform and is plotting politically feasible ways to reduce Social Security as well as health spending.

Now, at first blush those statements certainly seem mututally exclusive. But it’s important to remember that it’s politicians giving these quotes, and adminitration officials are always going to choose their words carefully, and that because of that you really need to parse what they say before you do something definitive like publish a blog post about them. So let’s game these out. On the one hand, someone told Ezra Klein that the administration was going to use the fiscal responsibility summit to make the arguement that Social Security was more or less sound, and that healthcare reform was much more important for our fiscal stability (they did), and that there was no political room to make changes to Social Security at the moment (which seems fair enough), and so there were no plans to do anything with Social Security for “the foreseeable future.” It’s important to remember that the source is hedging, as administration officials are always going to do. Anyone who sets some sort of concrete proclomation about the future years out isn’t in a position to be informed on these things, because political actors of that caliber just don’t do that. And what was told to Brooks is even less specific and substantive. Basically we’re told, second hand, that Obama is “extremely committed” to something, and that something is defined very broadly as “entitlement reform.” Indeed, we don’t even know if the sources mentioned Social Security themselves, or if Brooks embellished somewhat. The more I think about it, the more it seems that anonymity is a rather large red herring here, at least in Brooks’s case, and the larger issue is the sloppy and ambiguous write up of a completely empty quote he got.

It’s also important to consider that these are two different things. While Brooks is publishing second hand conjecture about things Obama is committed to doing “in the long term,” at least one of the issues Ezra addressed, the nature of the fiscal responsibility summit, has been proven to be accurate. That should pretty clearly tip the scale, at least for now, in Ezra’s favor, and cast more skepticism in Brooks’s direction. When adding in that the quote Brooks relayed didn’t really say anything and leaves a football field’s worth of political wiggle room (the nice thing about committing to “the long term” is that you can always come back and claim that things are just different down the road), I don’t really think it’s helpful to give the two equal weight. Clearly, Ezra has infinitely more credibility than Brooks at this juncture, and giving them equal credence is a false equivalency. That it helps build the desired case against anonymous quotes doesn’t really change that.

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