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Sunday, February 29, 2004

VandeHei Watch: 2.29.04

Jim VandeHei and Brian Faler are on page A5 of the Sunday Washington Post with an article that focuses on John Kerry's plans for the federal budget, cataloguing his taxation and spending proposals that he has announced thus far in the campaign. The problem I have with the article is that despite most of its content being an innocuous catalogue of these things, its angle that is played up suggests that Kerry's numbers don't add up. "Kerry's Spending, Tax Plans Fall Short: Review of Proposals Shows Expenditures Exceeding Savings by $165 Billion" screams the provocative headline. Once you read the piece, however, you realize this is just based on the reporter's own estimates, the accuracy of which we are unable to check, and a few quotes from an unnamed source:

But a review of his campaign proposals shows that the Democratic front-runner is promising to spend at least $165 billion more on new programs during his first term in office than he could save with his tax plan, a mix of breaks for the middle class and increases for corporations and the most affluent. The $165 billion figure does not include the cost of several proposals Kerry has not fully detailed or backed with estimates.

A policy adviser with Kerry's campaign said the candidate can fulfill his promise to cut the deficit in half by 2009 by slashing spending in other areas and "shedding" or "paring down" some proposals if necessary. Kerry also anticipates stimulating the economy with greater spending during his first two years in office, the adviser said.

The Massachusetts senator has vowed not to touch entitlement programs such as Social Security, which eat up a huge chunk of tax dollars, forcing a likely squeeze or freeze of popular programs to make his deficit-cutting goal. The adviser said it is not uncommon for a campaign's political team to overpromise during the primaries and then turn to the policy staff during the general election battle to cram the pledges into a workable budget.

The authors never tell us where the $165 billion figure comes from. I checked the economic plan on John Kerry's web site and found no numbers that could lead to a projection of such a shortfall, and I haven't located any independent calculations by think tanks either. Without providing information on where the numbers come from, the authors lack credibility in making this charge. It seems pretty basic that in an article trumpeting a budget figure the reader should know the basis of that figure, and VandeHei and Faler fail this basic test. The statements attributed to the unnamed source are also meant to convey that the campaign admits the budget gap exists, but the source never actually does admit this.

Then there is the larger point that even if budget numbers are off a little bit at this point, that's not a big deal. VandeHei and Faler try to make the case that this is a major problem, quoting a Gore 2000 official who says it's important to have the budget numbers sound, but this isn't the case at this point. Kerry undoubtedly will lay things out in greater detail once the general election battle is joined, showing how he accounts for his claims (I see proposals on his web site that are not mentioned in the WaPo article, by the way).

The more general proposals Kerry makes at this stage are intended rather to give voters a sense of his governing priorities and how he would seek to achieve them. No president ever gets his entire program passed without Congress changing or blocking some significant pieces of it, and circumstances can change during the course of the election year, forcing modifications. Projections of the future budget picture are inherently rough too, as the Bush administration has shown by creating much larger deficits than expected a few years ago.

Oh yes, and by the way, the Bush administration has the country on the way toward $2.75 trillion of more debt over ten years--hardly a record of sound fiscal policy-making--but since this is a negative Kerry piece, VandeHei and Faler don't mention this until the seventh paragraph, quickly moving on. The budgetary question voters really should be asking themselves is this: could Kerry possibly do any worse than Bush has?

UPDATE 2/29 4:30pm: This issue of whether Kerry's budget figures add up made it onto the Sunday morning debate. Edwards used it to attack Kerry when he said, "Well, The Washington Post today just analyzed his proposals, and its the same old thing. Here we go again. In fact, in fact, he overspends, in terms of being able to pay for all of his proposals, he overspends by $165 billion in his first term, which means he would drive us deeper and deeper into deficit." Thanks to Edwards bringing it up, we were able to hear Kerry's response to the article:

I think John would have learned by now not to believe everything he reads in a newspaper. And he should do his homework, because the fact is that what's printed in The Washington Post today is inaccurate.

A stimulus is by definition something that you do outside of the budget for one year or two years. The Washington Post included the stimulus when they figured the numbers. The stimulus is what you do to kick the economy into gear so that you can reduce the deficit.

Secondly, they did not include the reduction of the $139 billion of the Medicare bill which I have said I am sending back to Congress because it's a bad bill. I voted against it, it's bad.

Now, when you add up my stimulus that's outside of the budget and the Medicare numbers that they didn't even include, you do not go over, I do not spend more...

At that point Kerry was cut off--it seemed like everyone got cut off the entire debate without being able to finish an answer--but we got the gist of his response. Stimulus shouldn't be counted toward the budget (a questionable assertion, though the president's not counting Iraq spending is no better), and there are other elements of his proposals that were left out, as I presumed, which is definitely a legitimate gripe. Again, though, I'm not sure how Kerry knows what was in the calculation and what wasn't since the article gives limited clues.