Press Giving McCain “Mad Pass” On Economic Plan?

Josh Marshall argues that the press coverage of McCain’s economic plan (which Marshall summarizes as, “He’s pledging to balance the budget in four years and when asked for details he says, ‘We’ll get back to you on that.’” ) is representative of “the mad pass John McCain gets on everything.”

Writes Marshall:

Now, the general routine is the face of this kind of candidate announcement is that journalists and economists look at the numbers to see if they add up. In most cases, the exercises generates fairly unsatisfying contradictory opinions, with some experts saying one thing and other experts another.

But here’s the thing. McCain doesn’t have any numbers. None. Not vague numbers of fuzzy math. He just says he’s going to do it. Any other candidate would get laughed off the stage with that kind of nonsense or more likely reporters just wouldn’t agree to give them a write up. But this is all over the place.

Well, what about the New York Timespiece on the McCain plan? The one with the headline, “Skepticism on McCain Plan to Balance Budget by 2013” and the lead: “The package of spending and tax cuts proposed by Senator John McCain is unlikely to achieve his goal of balancing the federal budget by 2013, economists and fiscal experts said Monday” (and later: “Mr. McCain said he would hold overall spending growth to 2.4 percent a year. That is a tall order…Mr. McCain said he would also slow the growth of Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid…But [he] did not give details of how he would alter those benefit programs… “).

That’s about as close to “laughing the candidate off the stage” as the Times is likely to get on its news pages, no?

Marshall has a point, though, when it comes to the Washington Post’s coverage. The Post’s story—headlined, “McCain Says He Would Balance The Budget by 2013”— leads with (and mostly sticks with) political atmospherics not policy details (the fact that this promise is one McCain has made before and then “strayed from,” that yesterday was McCain’s “first public event since shuffling his campaign leadership last week.”) Readers are told that McCain “did not offer details about how he would achieve,” for example, reforms to Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid but the only voices critical of McCain’s plan are “Democrats” who, Michael D. Shear reports, “immediately criticized McCain, asserting that his promise is unrealistic, given his stated goals of tax cuts and other government spending.”

UPDATE: The Associated Press story may be the worst of the bunch (that I’ve read, anyway). The AP outlines briefly what each candidate says they want to do, economy-wise, then reports that “from a political standpoint, Obama’s selling job would seem easier. McCain has linked himself in many ways to the struggling administration…” emphasizing not what each plan may or may not actually do for the people but on which candidate might have an easier time selling their plan to the people (plus a little bit about what one candidate says the other candidate’s plan might do for the people).

As for McCain’s balance the budget pledge, we learn that “Obama said the Republican has not come close to explaining plausibly how he would do so” and that “McCain has given mixed signals in recent months over whether he would make it a priority to balance the budget within four years, a goal that most economists consider to be at odds with McCain’s call for continued tax cuts.” And that, such as it is, only comes toward the very end of this story of “dueling plans.”

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Liz Cox Barrett is a writer at CJR.