Shadow Government

Straining at gnats and swallowing camels

Independent fact checkers are in a tough business. Unlike their partisan counterparts, who merrily use double standards to excuse their own whoppers and slam their opponents for the slightest infractions, independent fact checkers are supposed to apply the same standard scrupulously, letting the chips fall where they may.

The biggest no-no for a fact checker who covets a reputation for independence and fairness is to strain at a gnat while swallowing a camel.

Which brings me to two posts by the Washington Post's Glenn Kessler, the dean of political fact checkers. Kessler takes his job seriously and, I believe, works hard to earn a reputation for fairness. He has earned the benefit of my doubt by virtue of his repeated efforts to patrol both sides and, on occasion, to engage with his critics.

Today, I am one of those critics, because I cannot see how he swallowed the camel of Obama's claim that Romney "wants to spend $2 trillion on additional military programs even though the military's not asking for them," whilst straining at the gnat of Romney's claim: "The size of our Navy is at levels not seen since 1916."

Kessler awards one Pinnochio to Obama's claim about what the military is seeking, which in his scale means "Some shading of the facts. Selective telling of the truth. Some omissions and exaggerations, but no outright falsehoods." He awards Romney's claim about the Navy three Pinnochios, which means "Significant factual error and/or obvious contradictions."

I do not see how, using the same standard, he arrives at these two codings.

For the World War I navy claim, Kessler concedes that the number of ships today approximates the size of the Navy before we entered WWI, but dings Romney for failing to note that the Navy reached an even slightly lower number in 2007 -- so, technically, "the trend line is up."

Yet Kessler understands that this sort of petty number parsing is not what varsity Fact Checking is about, and so spends most of his time dinging Romney for failing to credit the Navy with all of the qualitative improvements in technology since World War I. The most powerful ship today, an aircraft carrier, packs vastly more punch than the most powerful ship in 1916, a battleship, and so a 300 ship navy today is vastly more capable than a 300 ship navy in 1916.

Failing to contextualize the reference, Kessler concludes, makes it a "nonsense fact," even if it is technically mostly true on the surface. (So maybe it isn't a "significant factual error" then?)

One could devote a lengthy analysis to the context Kessler himself omits from his analysis. For instance, anti-ship technology has greatly improved since 1916 and so if the real underlying question is "How adequate is our naval modernization plans to confront the threats we are facing tomorrow?" then what matters is the net assessment of the ships we are planned to have tomorrow against the threats we are likely to face tomorrow. Comparing the capacity of today's ships with yesterday's ships, as Kessler does, is at least as much a "nonsense fact" as what he credits Romney with.

Moreover, as Joseph Stalin observed, it is not merely a matter of quality: "Quantity has a quality all its own." A qualitatively superior force can be defeated or at least thwarted by a quantitatively superior swarm. And, when the issue is regional coverage, even a qualitatively superior ship cannot be in two oceans at the same time.

Bottom line: Romney's underlying claim that Obama's defense budget does not adequately address the threats confronting the United States over the lifetime of the navy Obama has programmed is at least arguable. The World War I reference is suggestively supportive -- though not dispositive -- and probably merits at worst 1 Pinnochio.

Don't take my word for it. Simply apply the standards of reasoning Kessler applies to Obama's far more egregious claim about the military not asking for the programs Romney promises to include in his defense budget.

Kessler begins this fact-checking exercise with another careful parsing of the numbers and finds that Obama is engaging in a bit of hyperbole by worst-casing it and not crediting Romney for all of the caveats he has included -- but that is not the interesting (to me) part of the assignment since both sides agree that Romney is promising to spend more on defense than Obama is promising to spend.

What gives Obama's quote punch is not the precise dollar estimate but rather the claim that the military has not asked for the programs that Romney's extra spending would allow. This claim, if true, would make Romney's proposed spending frivolous and thus, in a time of fiscal constraint, beyond reckless.

Kessler, to his credit, partially investigates this part and finds several instances of Obama's own national security team asking for roughly the amount of spending Romney's proposals would entail. Yet Kessler does not consider this to be proof that Obama is dissembling because he also notes that the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff testified on behalf of the president's budget in January 2012.

Kessler acknowledges that Dempsey may not have wanted Obama's downscaled budget but since he testified on its behalf, Kessler is not going to ding Obama about whether the military asked for it. Kessler gives Obama the barest slap on the wrist because his "phrasing is certainly carefully parsed."

The facticity of Obama's claim does not turn on the difference between want and ask, but rather on when you credit the military with asking.

What Kessler fails to adequately credit, but which I emphasized in my own analysis (which concluded there may not be "enough Pinocchios in Tuscany to describe how misleading" the Administration's position is), is that by the time of Dempsey's January 2012 testimony, the military had already been ordered to accept these cuts.

Obama decided on a cut to the defense topline, then ordered the defense department to come up with a strategy that fit under that topline, and then ordered the department to come up with a budget that fit that tailored strategy that fit that arbitrary topline. In order to reach that budget goal, the department had to cut many programs that just the year before they had asked for and defended as necessary for national security.

Its worse than that: Since the development of any given year's budget takes so long and Obama's cuts came relatively late in the game, the department had to cut things that they were preparing to ask for in that very budget year cycle. Kessler could have done some reporting to compare what the military had been asking for in the development of that fiscal year's defense budget with what the president permitted.

Obama wants to pick the latest possible time for assessing what the military is asking for: when the military testifies on behalf of the president's budget. But by that time, the military has been ordered to accept that budget. Their choice at that point is to accept or resign in protest. If they testify on behalf of it, what you can conclude is that they think they can live with this budget and are not willing to resign in protest over it. If you want to know what they asked for, look at the budget requests they submitted in the development of the budget process, before they were told what they would have to settle for. 

Now it is true that the military services always ask for more than they get, so it hardly ends the debate over whether the spending is needed simply to note that at some point the military asked for that program. But, at the same time, the fact that they asked for it rather gives the lie to the claim that they didn't ask for it.

In my piece, I emphasized the damage to civil-military relations that the Obama administration was doing in peddling this partisan line. Kessler's in a different business, so I don't blame him for ignoring the damage to civil-military relations.

But he is in the fact-checking business, and he does claim to want to avoid a double-standard.

So I asked him for his explanation, and he kindly gave me his answer:

"The Pinocchio ratings are the toughest part of my job, and I strive to be consistent in how I apply them. I evaluate statements on a case by case basis, and politicians have become quite clever at figuring out ways to avoid getting trapped by a fact checker. That's why Obama uses the word "ask" in his statement; it was clearly a carefully chosen word.

Readers of the column on the defense budget will note that I essentially took a pass on rating whether Obama was correct in the distinction between "ask" and "want," leaving the judgment up to the readers -- or defense analysts. So the One Pinocchio rating was essentially aimed at the claim of a $2 trillion increase in defense budget. I think it is fair to say I was dubious about the claim that the military did not want more money, and you certainly raise some good points about how they were ordered to shift course in the middle of the process."

I think he makes a good point for why he gave Obama some wiggle room, but, as Kessler himself might say, I leave it to the reader to determine whether he gave Romney the benefit of the same wiggle room. I am still not persuaded he did, but maybe I am the one straining at the gnat?

NICHOLAS KAMM/AFP/GettyImages

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