“Fact-Checking” Gone Wrong: Glenn Kessler Gives Two Pinocchios to a Correct Statement About Mary Landrieu’s Vote for ObamaCare
This ad says Mary Landrieu cast “the deciding vote” for ObamaCare:
Enter Glenn Kessler, Fact-Checker Extraordinaire, who gives this entirely true statement “Two Pinocchios.” Here is his reasoning:
As always with bills in the Senate, there are critical procedure votes. Because of GOP objection, Democrats needed to win a supermajority of 60 votes in order to end debate and advance the Senate’s version of the legislation. (This is known as a cloture vote.) On Christmas Eve in 2009, the bill was passed in the Senate by a vote of 60 to 39.
Every Democrat in the Senate, including Landrieu, voted for that bill. But it was never officially reconciled with a House version because the Democrats lost the Massachusetts Senate seat in a special election. So an amendment of the Senate bill, crafted in the House, was finally passed on March 25 under a procedure that avoided the 60-vote requirement. That bill only needed 50 votes, and it passed 56 to 43, with Landrieu again voting with the majority.
It was certainly a messy ending but Obama’s health-care effort did not become law until the second bill was passed.
Levi Russell, an AFP spokesman, said the first vote backs up the ad’s statement. “In order to achieve cloture and pass President Obama’s health care law out of the Senate, the bill needed 60 votes,” he said. “The bill passed 60-39 out of the Senate. As Landrieu voted yes, her vote provided the critical margin for passage. If she had voted no, the bill would not have passed.”
Sounds right to me. But Kessler comes up with his own definition of the “deciding vote”:
Okay, but is that what really happened? The deciding vote is really that last vote reached—and that wasn’t Landrieu. Instead it was then Sen. Ben Nelson of Nebraska (who, by the way, voted against the second bill.)
. . . .
Given that Landrieu was one of the last holdouts on the law, a reasonable case could be made that her vote was important for the outcome, at least for the first vote. But calling her the “deciding vote” is going too far, as it invites a slippery slope in which attack ads could be made against every Senate Democrat, saying each cast the deciding vote.
In the case of the cloture vote, there was only one deciding vote — Ben Nelson. And he’s no longer in the Senate.
But every single Democrat did cast the deciding vote. Her vote was not just “important” to the outcome — it was critical. It was indispensable — in the sense that without it, there would be no ObamaCare. There would be no second bill and no signed law. Landrieu’s vote was absolutely essential to the passage of the law — as was the vote of every other Democrat.
Now, maybe you disagree with my argument. But the issue is at least debatable, isn’t it? My position is at least arguably correct. It’s a matter of opinion. Yet Kessler, the “fact checker,” gives the ad “two Pinocchios” — which under the paper’s rating system means:
Significant omissions and/or exaggerations. Some factual error may be involved but not necessarily. A politician can create a false, misleading impression by playing with words and using legalistic language that means little to ordinary people.
What is “significant” about whether Landrieu’s vote was the first, one of the middle ones, or the last? It is clear that the point of this ad was to say: if Mary Landrieu had not voted this way, we would have not have gotten ObamaCare. That is 100% correct. Who cares whether it was the final vote or not? That’s not the point of the ad. The point of the ad was that her vote was absolutely critical to the outcome.
But it’s worse than Kessler’s assessment of this one ad — because his pronouncement has far-reaching implications. Now, any time Mary Landrieu’s opponent argues that she cast the deciding vote for ObamaCare, who is absolutely correct, she will be able to say: “The Washington Post has ruled that exact claim to be misleading and gave it two Pinocchios.” And that (unlike her opponent’s claim) will be entirely misleading.
Fact checkers need to stay out of areas where a statement is arguably entirely true. Unfortunately, they haven’t, they don’t, and they never will.
UPDATE: A bit more analysis here.
UPDATE x2: The hacks at PolitiFact have done essentially the same thing here.
“Any one of those 60 Democrats who voted for it in the U.S. Senate, had they voted no, it would not have passed,” Rubens said in an interview. “So any one of those 60 would have been the deciding vote.”
However, PolitiFact has been unsympathetic to that argument in the past, since calling someone “the deciding vote” implies he or she played a pivotal role, such as withholding support until the last moment.
Your vote plays a pivotal role if, without it, the bill would fail. As the kids say: duh. (Do the kids still say that? I am confident they would say it to PolitiFact.)