VIRGINIA — If you’ve heard one thing about Thursday’s hour-long debate in McLean between Senate candidates George Allen and Tim Kaine, it’s this: in an exchange about Mitt Romney’s “47 percent” video, Kaine, the Democrat, said he “would be open to a proposal that has some minimum tax level for everyone.” It was a head-scratching line that one reporter following the exchange called “one of the most obvious unforced errors I’ve ever seen.”
Kaine’s apparent gaffe—which cuts against Democrats’ attack on Romney and his own oft-stated position on taxes, and which his campaign was promptly spinning away after the debate—did show up in all the debate coverage (and, since the debate was held during a workday and only televised in the D.C. suburbs, coverage and campaign ads are how most voters will hear about anything the two men said). Even so, there were two very different frames for the coverage. The Washington Post’s debate recap was devoted almost entirely to Kaine’s ear-catcher and the resulting spin, while other outlets here—like the Richmond Times-Dispatch The Virginian-Pilot in Hampton Roads, and The Roanoke Times—managed to work the candidates’ positions on tax cuts, fiscal policy, potential defense cuts and other issues into their coverage.
The Post’s article opted to offer a lesson in campaign strategy, a look at how an unexpected remark can be turned against a candidate. Reporter Laura Vozzella seemed almost bored by the rest of the debate itself and the campaign to date. The lede:
Republicans attacked Timothy M. Kaine on Thursday after he said during a much-anticipated Senate debate that he would consider a minimum income tax for every American, opening a fresh line of attack in a nationally watched race that until now has turned on mostly predictable and well-worn accusations.
Kaine, a Democrat, made the comment as he squared off against Republican George Allen, a fellow former governor and his opponent in the Virginia race, in their first televised debate. The hour-long program, hosted by “Meet the Press” host David Gregory at the Capital One Conference Center in McLean, was mostly devoid of fireworks.
The remainder of the article is mostly devoted to the spin war that broke out over Kaine’s comments, and the way in which Kaine ceded an advantage on an issue that might have been challenging for Allen. Along the way Vozzella offers fuller context for Kaine’s remark, and she notes that a minimum tax isn’t part of Kaine’s overall fiscal plan, which he discussed “several times during the debate.” She also has a sharp section on how the post-debate discussion featured some “strange role reversals,” with Allen declaring, “I don’t think everyone ought to be paying income taxes”—a position that apparently puts him at odds with his party’s standard-bearer—and Kaine, who’s been fending off charges that he’s a liberal, boasting of how many low-income Virginians he took off the tax rolls as governor.
It amounted to some decent political analysis. But with so much space devoted to a line that doesn’t even reflect Kaine’s policy views, the article had little to say on what the candidates do believe. Kaine may have discussed his fiscal plan several times, but it’s not described in the Post piece. This is about the extent of the coverage of what Kaine and Allen said on other issues:
The debate was mostly civil, touching on issues such as jobs and the economy, women’s issues and gay rights, looming defense cuts and the federal health-care overhaul. Each man seemed to take pains to compliment the other on something; Allen praised Kaine’s response to the Virginia Tech shootings, and Kaine gave Allen kudos for his vigor on the campaign trail.
Fortunately, coverage elsewhere took a different approach. In defense industry-dependent Hampton Roads, The Virginian-Pilot led with the debate over the looming federal sequester—automatic federal budget cuts, including deep reductions in defense spending, that will go into effect if Democrats and Republicans fail to iron out budget differences. And while reporter Julian Walker devoted a few paragraphs to the sparring over Kaine’s “minimum tax” line, he did find space to described Kaine’s fiscal plan and Allen’s alternative.
Fiscal policy and the budget sequester were also the focus in the Richmond Times-Dispatch, along with a recounting of the “47 percent” exchange that included Kaine’s “minimum tax” line and his subsequent backtrack. The Roanoke Times took a similar approach, while also delving into the candidates’ discussions of foreign policy and bipartisanship. (Unfortunately, the Times’s subhed showed how policy-oriented debate coverage can turn into a laundy list: “George Allen and Tim Kaine outlined their stances on several national issues,” it read.) So did The Associated Press, in a story that was carried by the state’s smaller papers.
All these accounts appropriately featured Kaine’s “minimum tax” line. The difference is in the prominence it was given—and whether the article included any other information a voter might want to know.
Going forward, meanwhile, reporters might consider this advice from blogger (and Washington Post contributor) Jon Bernstein: if Kaine mangled his talking points because he’s ill-informed on tax policy or generally doesn’t know what he’s talking about, “there’s a larger story than flubbing an answer in a debate, and that story really deserves to be covered.” But if he just happened to make an ill-opportune mistake, there’s not much here. That’s something for journalists to figure out—and report accordingly.
Of course, reporting what the candidates are saying on various issues isn’t as good as checking the accuracy of their claims, and there was little pushback offered in any of the initial debate coverage beyond the point-counterpoint provided by the candidates themselves. Fortunately, the staff at PolitiFact Virginia ably checked in Friday with a quick look at some of Kaine and Allen’s claims, drawing from some of their previous work, and they promise more to come.
In addition to the debate fact-check, on Thursday PolitiFact Virginia took a close look at Allen’s charge that Kaine supports “devastating defense cuts.”
That’s great news. As I noted in a post on Thursday, the Senate race pace is accelerating precipitously. There are two more debates between Allen and Kaine, and it seems as if a new ad is airing from one or the other camps daily. Hopefully newsrooms around the station are gearing up to offer similar substantive, thoughtful coverage, and to help voters sort through the message war.