Passing Bad Checks

Boehner’s “blank check” line demands context reporters aren’t providing

This week, in Washington’s war of attrition over the debt ceiling, the media has had many a political soundbite tossed its way: Bigger governments and smaller people.
Sacred cows. That dirty word, compromise.

These all had their moments, but none of them have made the media rounds quite like “blank check.”

“Blank check” had been a rhetorical favorite of the Republican party for months, but the catchphrase really came into its own this week, yes, because it was a Republican talking point, but also because the media repeated it a lot.

Things really got going on Monday when Speaker of the House John Boehner responded to President Obama’s address to the nation about raising the debt ceiling.

“The sad truth is that the president wanted a blank check six months ago, and he wants a blank check today. That is just not going to happen.”

With little regard to whether or not this statement was true, the media found it particularly quotable.

The line was repeated the next day in stories like this one in The New York Times:

In response to Mr. Obama, Mr. Boehner said: “The sad truth is that the president wanted a blank check six months ago, and he wants a blank check today. That is just not going to happen.”

Mr. Boehner urged the president to sign a Republican plan to raise the debt limit. “If the president signs it,” he said, “the ‘crisis’ atmosphere he has created will simply disappear. The debt limit will be raised.”
And incorporated into headlines, like this one from Bloomberg: “Boehner to Offer Plan to Avert Default, Deny Obama ‘Blank Check.’”

Or this one from the Associated Press: “House speaker says Obama won’t get ‘blank check’,” which was turned into this one in The Washington Post: “On heels of Obama speech, House speaker says president won’t get ‘blank check’ in debt fight.”

ABC’s Nightline, in a simple blog post, gave its audience the night’s most quotable soundbites to go on and polled “Obama vs. Boehner: Who came out on top?”

“The only reason this balanced approach isn’t on its way to becoming law right now is because a significant number of Republicans in Congress are insisting on a different approach, a cuts-only approach.” —President Barack Obama

“The sad truth is that the president wanted a blank check six months ago, and he wants a blank check today. That is just not going to happen.”
—Speaker John Boehner

With whom do you agree?

Whether one is to infer both statements are true and equally weighable or whether, that only message—and not truth—matters in these contests is left up to the discretion of the voter. The above news stories were no better, and made no bother examining whether the ‘blank check’ charge of their headlines or texts were fair.

Of course, the message does matter, which is why media should use some discretion when reporting political talking points. The Speaker’s comments should of course be part of the coverage on the debt ceiling debate, but it’s critical these comments are reported with context, and not merely amplified by media play. (Crossroads GPS is already shelling out plenty to spread this talking point around.)

If the Speaker of House is spouting an out-an-out lie as, Adam Serwer was quick to point out on The Washington Post’s Plum Line blog, was the case with Boehner’s “blank check” line, this misleading rhetoric needs to be noted.

First—much to the chagrin of liberals—the president has already said he’s willing to make cuts to entitlement programs. That is not the sticking point—rather, it’s that the GOP is adamant that the burden of the deficit must be borne exclusively by people who rely on those programs and not include any increases in revenue for the wealthy.

But the far more dishonest statement is Boehner’s line that the debt ceiling amounts to a “blank check.” This is a straight-up lie. Not the everyday, casual fudging that politicians do, but a straight up lie. As the Government Accountability Office explains: “The debt limit does not control or limit the ability of the federal government to run deficits or incur obligations. Rather, it is a limit on the ability to pay obligations already incurred.”

This isn’t a perfect metaphor, but not raising the debt ceiling is more like refusing to pay your credit card bill than it is akin to asking for a blank check. Congress appropriates funds; if they don’t want Obama to spend more, it’s within Congress’s power to withhold that money. That’s you know, in the Constitution. I believe the GOP insisted on it being read at the beginning of the 112th Congress, but they don’t seem to have been paying attention.

The Washington Post’s Plum Line was back on the case Thursday, this time with Greg Sargent pointing out that the “blank check line” was not only false, but that Michele Bachmann—who used the line as recently as yesterday—argued against it herself when she got Boehner’s talking point tangled up in her own bag of rhetorical tricks. She was speaking on CNN, several steps ahead of reality. Here’s an account from CNN’s web site:

Republican presidential candidate Michele Bachmann said President Obama would be a “dictator” if he raised the debt ceiling by executive order, using the 14th amendment of the U.S. Constitution as justification.

“It’s Congress that does the spending. The president is prohibited to do that. If he had the power to do that he would effectively be a dictator,” the Minnesota Congresswoman said Thursday on CNN’s “American Morning.” “There would be no reason for Congress to even come to Washington, D.C. He would be making the spending decisions … Clearly that’s unconstitutional.”

Sargent’s response:

Of course, if Congress ultimately determines spending—which of course it does—there’s no way raising the debt ceiling would constitute giving President Obama a “blank check,” as John Boehner and other Republicans keep falsely insisting.

The Plum Line was not totally alone its effort to take Boehner to task over his wildly misleading use of “blank check.” Kudos also goes to The New Republic’s Jonathan Chait and particularly Mother Jones’s David Corn, who two days ago (and two days before us), not only called out Boehner, but also the media for breathing life into the “blank check” lie and making it all the more poisonous.

The GOP is peddling a potent lie. And Boehner and his comrades are able to get away with it because within the current political-media culture there is not much of a penalty for exploiting lies. Reporters toiling for supposedly objective outlets tend to focus on charge and countercharge. (He said it was a lie; he replied that it was not a lie.) Sure, there are fact-checking outfits run by the mainstream media. (I’ve yet to see one pronounce a verdict on the “blank check” charge.) But usually their disapproval does little to stop a politician from repeating a falsehood.

It’s irresponsible when politicians make these claims, but its many times more so when the media so blithely lets them.

Has America ever needed a media watchdog more than now? Help us by joining CJR today.

Erika Fry is a former assistant editor at CJR.