It’s hard to know what to make of Tim Pawlenty, the Gopher State’s ex-governor, tramping around the country building his presidential campaign. Was/is he a state budget fixer-upper? A Tea Party sympathizer? A foe of Social Security and Medicare? A parrot for Republican rhetoric? The media, to their credit, are starting to answer some of these questions, although covering his talk at the Cato Institute yesterday might have been kind of frustrating.

Nevertheless, Kim Dixon of Reuters tried to round out the gov’s remarks with a bit of context. We wish she had done more, but presumably there will be other chances. She reported that Pawlenty “railed against government workers and what he described as their lavish compensation, even though such spending comprises a small slice of total federal spending.” She also pointed out that he is trying to be a deficit hawk, but critics in Minnesota simply papered over the cracks in the state’s budget, which is in trouble again. That’s useful information for voters trying to understand where Pawlenty stands.

But when it came to Medicare and Social Security, Dixon didn’t provide much extra reporting, basically noting that Pawlenty disclosed he had a plan for overhauling Medicare that would be different from the now very controversial plan passed by the House and defeated yesterday by the Senate. OncolinTHERA.com provided a fuller quote: “My plan will include a series of options that people can choose from, one of which will be to stay in the current program,” he explained. “We’re going to have some other attractive options that I think are going to make a big difference.” He refused to detail what his program would look like, saying only that “it’ll be different from Congressman Ryan’s proposal.”

Okay, Pawlenty may have refused to talk about his plan, but his remarks should have sent journalists running to the nearest expert to fact check what he said. As millions of beneficiaries know, Medicare currently lets them opt out of Medicare and get all of their benefits from what’re called Medicare Advantage (MA) plans—a cause célèbre during the days of health reform. Congress cut the overpayments the government was making to these plans to provide Medicare’s basic benefits, but most of the plans are alive and well and will be for the foreseeable future.

To review: Seniors can choose to leave the traditional program where the government pays their hospital and doctor bills, or they can select an all-in-one deal run by private insurers that covers the traditional Medicare benefits and sometimes includes prescription drugs. So the question on the table is how will his plan be different and what new options can he possibly think of? Seniors have way too many options now for them to make good choices. Will the politicians’ “choice” mantra bring another hundred or so options to consider? Reporters covering these stump speeches need to ask those questions.

Ditto for Social Security. The candidate told attendees at the Cato event that he favored big changes to Social Security. Reuters reported: “We’re going to have to look people in the eye and say ‘Do you know what? If you are new to the workforce, for you, we’re going to gradually raise the retirement age over time, we have to.’” Not everyone agrees that raising the retirement age is the only solution to addressing Social Security’s financial shortfall a few decades from now. It would have been good for Dixon to have mentioned that.

Wednesday’s talk came down to guns or butter—cutting Social Security was necessary; cutting defense spending was not. If Pawlenty continues that theme, context is surely in order.

Trudy Lieberman is a fellow at the Center for Advancing Health and a longtime contributing editor to the Columbia Journalism Review. She is the lead writer for The Second Opinion, CJR’s healthcare desk, which is part of our United States Project on the coverage of politics and policy. Follow her on Twitter @Trudy_Lieberman.