What To Do with the “Pledge to America”?

“Front it!” says the media

Today’s morning papers were full of reports on the “Pledge to America,” the long-awaited sequel to 1994’s Congress-winning smash, the “Contract for America.” Given advance copies of the twenty-one page draft of Republican Party proposals—the full and final version will be unveiled at a Virginia hardware store at 10 a.m. today—reporters last night sifted through the often lofty language and today presented its unsurprising bullet points, an unsurprising Democratic response, and reiterated the political forecast in which the pledge is being made: a 48-38 chance of change.

But no one, it seems, dared take their reporting further than the highlights reel; no one went beyond the he said/she said to assess the quality and impact of the new proposals. That may be to come, but for now, readers are left wondering: these are the ideas, but will they actually work?

A quick point before we look at how well everyone did with their homework. This new Republican promise to potential voters is important stuff; not necessarily because it repositions the party politically as the party of “No, but…” but because it gives voters an actual indication of what a Republican congress would look like and attempt to do. Voters finally have something to choose between.

However, it is also a shrewdly timed announcement and PR stunt. The announcement comes on the same day that the first consumer protections of the Affordable Care Act go into place; no doubt planners had every intention of overshadowing coverage of those new protections.

And they’re pretty voter-friendly protections at that: companies can no longer exclude from coverage preexisting conditions in enrollees eighteen and under; insurers can no longer set lifetime limits on benefits; policies cannot be retroactively cancelled because of errors on enrollment forms; children twenty-five or under must be allowed to stay on parents’ policies; and preventative care must be free.

There is some nice coverage of these issues this morning—the Times has a bunch of effective reports in the paper today, the Atlanta Constitution Journal has some nice local-impact work, among others—but it’s been generally subsumed by the Boehner parade, relegated, in the Times’s case, to page sixteen, while the new “Pledge” gets front page billing. Just as it was intended.

No counter-intuitive programming here, the twenty-one-page press release won the day, made the headlines, ate the inches.

Things being the way they are, how did the stories play?

The Times’s story on the “Pledge” is a nice summary of the key points, heavy on quoted excerpts and political context. The lede and some later grafs give you a solid idea of what the plan contains:

Its goals include a permanent extension of all the Bush-era tax cuts, repeal of the newly enacted health care law, a cap on discretionary federal spending and an end to government control of the mortgage giants Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac.

… The blueprint is divided into five chapters: a plan to create jobs and end economic uncertainty; a plan to stop out-of-control spending and reduce the size of government; a plan to repeal and replace the government takeover of health care; a plan to reform Congress and restore trust; and a plan to keep the nation secure at home and abroad.

To reform the legislative branch itself, the plan calls for cutting the budget of Congress, and for imposing new rules in the House, including requirements that all bills be posted on the Internet for three days before votes, and that all legislation include a clause “citing the specific constitutional authority upon which the bill is justified.”

The final section, “Checks and Balances,” makes an argument for ending the Democrats’ one-party control of Washington.

Importantly, reporter David M. Herszenhorn offers some nice pushback against the spin as he talks us through the blueprint:

Still, many of the proposals represent classic Republican ideals of small government and low taxes pursued for generations by George W. Bush and other party leaders.

And this:

While the document emphasizes a goal of long-term fiscal stability, including reductions in the deficit and a “path to a balanced budget,” it offers no specifics about changes to big entitlement programs, including Social Security and Medicare, that would be required to achieve such stability.

Still, a lot of questions are left hanging—like, just how effective the “Pledge” might be. The Post offers an equally effective summary, without the pushback. It scores in getting some of the back-story behind the release of the “Pledge.”

In a political climate that favors Republicans, some GOP strategists cautioned against releasing any agenda, reasoning that it would just give Democrats something to criticize. But House Minority Leader John A. Boehner’s leadership team thought they needed to show that Republicans are prepared to govern and adopted what they call an 80-20 approach, expecting 80 percent of the campaign to be a negative contrast with Democrats and 20 percent to be focused on Republican ideas.

The paper gets more Politico by the minute.

And, of course, the Post reporters include the Democratic response doing the rounds, a quote from Pelosi spokesperson Nadeam Elshami. Stick to the formula, right?

“Congressional Republicans are pledging to ship jobs overseas; blow a $700 billion hole in the deficit to give tax cuts to millionaires and billionaires; turn Social Security from a guaranteed benefit into a guaranteed gamble; once again, subject American families to the recklessness of Wall Street,” Nadeam Elshami, a spokesman for House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.), said in a statement Wednesday.

What is missing from all reports is a sense of who’s right and who’s wrong; some adjudication between the claims made in this new plan and the counter-claims the Democrats are making. Are Republicans really pledging to ship jobs overseas? Will the pledge actually increase the deficit? You won’t find those answers in the above reports, or in the Journal’s strictly he said/she said report today. McClatchy won’t help you either—though their online headline, “Party Like It’s 1994”, is a New York Post-worthy winner.

How can you say what the outcomes might be from all of these proposals? As a journalist, you probably can’t. But not one of the major reports today reached out to an economist, labor expert, or some other independent figure (anyone?) to test the claims of either side; someone who might have some wiser words and more studied input than is coming from either end of the chamber. Sure, that would make it a he said/she said/then he or she said story, but it’s a start. And a lot more interesting than exploring the reasons behind why the GOP chose a hardware store; or repeating what a Pelosi spokesperson has to say about it all.

That said, it’s still probably not as interesting as the complicated changes coming to a health insurer near you.

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Joel Meares is a former CJR assistant editor.