The New York Times poses an interesting question today: “Is there a strong liberal argument to be made for attacking the federal debt?”

But in trying to answer it—through a sketch of Rep. Earl Blumenauer (D-Ore.)—the paper goes a bit squishy on some details and lobs some clever observations that just aren’t supported.

I understand that, as profile subjects go, Blumenauer is attractive:

Mr. Blumenauer, a seven-term congressman from Portland, Ore., is nobody’s idea of a centrist. Bow-tied and erudite in the manner of a prep school headmaster, he is known mostly as a champion of bicycle paths and light rail. (He bikes his way around both Washington and Portland and formed the Bicycle Caucus in the House.) The liberal League of Conservation Voters most recently gave him a perfect 100 rating, while the conservative National Taxpayers Union gave him an “F.”

But, setting aside the notion that centrists can’t be bow-tied, brainy and green, there’s something amiss here, or at least something missing.

Readers are told that Democratic party “is drawing ever closer to an internecine, once-in-a-generation war over whether to seriously scale back the federal budget.”

And writer Matt Bai sets Blumenauer up against a coalition of progressive groups like and the A.F.L.-C.I.O that have joined together in early opposition to any Social Security cuts that might be proposed by the president’s fiscal commission.

But the story goes on to note that Blumenauer, who is portrayed as a lonely voice of reason, “sides with the White House on the notion that Democrats need to do something now about the federal debt, starting with cuts in wasteful federal spending (like some farm subsidies and military outlays) and with changes to cherished entitlement programs.”

And yet there’s no context to help readers understand just how lonely this Oregonian is—no mention of other congressional Democrats, and how many might see the world as he does, or, perhaps, are already staked out in another direction.

It’s also disappointing that, in a piece all about Blumenauer’s view that liberals need to cut some federal spending in order to be able to do the things they really care about, the Times doesn’t press him any harder on just what spending he’d cut.

After all, it’s hard to find a lawmaker who’d support “wasteful federal spending,” and obvious that one pol’s waste is another’s pride and joy.

It was just a couple of days ago that Politico reported on the outlines of the GOP agenda as set forth by Eric Cantor, who stands to become majority leader if his party takes control of the House in November. And guess what’s on his list:

Cantor also says Republicans would focus on spending, ending the automatic federal pay raise and the building of bike paths, which he considers “nice, but certainly shouldn’t be the priority.”

Strange, huh? Who knew that bike paths were such a hot-button issue?

Others have noted another flaw with the piece, and its depiction of the Social Security trust fund.

Here’s Bai’s take on the liberals’ defense of Social Security:

The coalition bases its case on the idea that Social Security is actually in fine fiscal shape, since it has amassed a pile of Treasury Bills — often referred to as i.o.u.’s — in a dedicated trust fund. This is true enough, except that the only way for the government to actually make good on these i.o.u.’s is to issue mountains of new debt or to take the money from elsewhere in the federal budget, or perhaps impose significant tax increases — none of which seem like especially practical options for the long term. So this is sort of like saying that you’re rich because your friend has promised to give you 10 million bucks just as soon as he wins the lottery.

As Dean Baker puts it, that’s “radically at odds with perceptions in financial markets.”

These markets view it as almost inconceiable that the government will not honor its bonds, which is why the interest rate on long-term bonds is near its lowest level in the last 60 years.

Holly Yeager is CJR's Peterson Fellow, covering fiscal and economic policy. She is based in Washington and reachable at