Patterico's Pontifications


“Fact-Checking” Gone Wrong: Glenn Kessler Gives Two Pinocchios to a Correct Statement About Mary Landrieu’s Vote for ObamaCare

Filed under: General — Patterico @ 5:28 pm

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.)

30 Responses to ““Fact-Checking” Gone Wrong: Glenn Kessler Gives Two Pinocchios to a Correct Statement About Mary Landrieu’s Vote for ObamaCare”

  1. Ding.

    Patterico (9c670f)

  2. Kessler the Kontortionist.

    SPQR (768505)

  3. He started doing this whitewash for Arafat, then came stateside,

    narciso (3fec35)

  4. I would put this in the post, but it’s getting too long. Here, in my opinion, is how you do it:

    Who’s right?

    We went back to school with that question — this time, to American University, where Patrick Griffin, a former Clinton White House legislative liaison and former Senate Democratic aide, teaches a graduate seminar on the legislative process. He’s seen these kinds of claims before.

    “They’re basically saying that every senator is the deciding vote. And there is some logic to that,” Griffin said, because “every vote was determinative of what was needed for that bill to pass.”

    Those making the claim are “making it sound more dramatic,” Griffin said, but they are essentially saying that any one of the lawmakers who voted “yes” could have voted “no” and forced a different result.

    “That’s the logic, and it’s rhetorically stretching it,” he said, “but technically, every vote determined that outcome.”

    It sure did. I don’t even agree that it’s “stretching it” rhetorically, and if I had written the piece I would have demanded that Griffin explain why.

    Giving Pinocchios for this kind of thing is what makes fact checkers a joke.

    Patterico (9c670f)

  5. Here is how political opponents use this kind of crap. PolitiFact:

    The charge that this or that Democrat cast the deciding vote for the Affordable Care Act has shown up before. In June, a conservative group leveled it at Sen. Bill Nelson, D-Fla, (PolitiFact Florida rated that Mostly False), and in 2012, a Republican challenger made the same claim about Sen. Sherrod Brown, D-Ohio (PolitiFact Ohio rated that False).

    The reality is that if any Democratic senator deserves the distinction of clearing the way for the health reform law, it is Sen. Ben Nelson of Nebraska. As was widely reported at the time, Nelson delivered the 60th vote needed to send the bill to the floor for a vote.

    We spoke with Cotton’s staff and they didn’t actually say that Pryor played a unique role. They hold Pryor accountable because, “All of the votes were critical.” But Pryor’s support for the Affordable Care Act was known well before the final vote.

    And, lo and behold, the opponent uses this “ruling” to defend himself:

    In crying foul, the Pryor campaign is pointing to a PolitiFact article that pronounces the Cotton ad as “false.” Their basis for this rating is two-fold.

    First, they contend that Sen. Ben Nelson of Nebraska was the “deciding vote” for ObamaCare, not Pryor, as Nelson was the last holdout in the Senate to agree to vote for ObamaCare. You probably recall Nelson’s “Cornhusker Kickback“ in exchange for his vote. This is sort of a strange position as the law passed the Senate with the minimum hurdle of 60 votes. Since Pryor was 1 of these 60, he is every bit as much of the deciding vote as Nelson and the other 59.

    Damn right. But voters won’t pick things apart that finely. They will look at a “fact checker” saying it is “false” to say Pryor was the deciding vote, and that will be that.


    Patterico (9c670f)

  6. I think the problem is that it’s called “the deciding vote” — as if there were only one. Better to just call it a “crucial” vote or something like that.

    As far as the number of Pinocchios, having a numeric scale for veracity is silly — it’s not something with a linear measurement. I don’t think it’s particularly misleading even if not technically 100% true. The important thing is that she voted for it and her vote was necessary to make it pass.

    KenB (032227)

  7. Well her vote was as important as Nelson, otherwise they would not have needed the ‘Louisiana Purchase’, ans O’Keefe wouldn’t have needed to investigate why
    her phones were not taking calls.

    narciso (3fec35)

  8. Here’s your periodic reminder that the WaPo took Kessler off fact-checking for the period between Obama’s election and the swearing in of a GOP House in early 2011. Because when it’s a one-party government, no fact-checking is needed. Provided that one party is the Democrats.

    Karl (5f6b7a)

  9. Karl’s back,

    quick! everyone look busy!

    EPWJ (c3dbb4)

  10. I think the problem is that it’s called “the deciding vote” — as if there were only one.

    But everyone knows that “the deciding vote” is not the only vote, and therefore is “deciding” only in the meaningful sense that without it, the result would not have been obtained.

    I will again press the case: if a statistician were calculating the odds that you cast the deciding vote in a Presidential election, would he be calculating:

    1) the odds that you voted for the winner, and that the winner won by a single vote


    2) the odds that you voted for the winner, and that the winner won by a single vote, and that you cast the last vote of all the votes cast for the winner?

    Obviously #1, right?

    OK then.

    Patterico (9c670f)

  11. KARL!!!!!!!!

    Patterico (9c670f)

  12. They all drove the dagger into Caesar, why don’t they want to take credit.

    narciso (3fec35)

  13. It’s actually worse for her if she wasn’t the final vote Obamacare got. How does it benefit her in an election to argue that she wasn’t wavering?

    Still, it’s the wrong language.

    I could see this as a way maybe of arguing she knew better, or that while she might be moderate, she wasn’t, or hadn’t been, quite moderate or independent enough. But, really.

    It it better for her to say that she almost didn’t vote for it, than it would be to say, it never was close??

    Sammy Finkelman (8cd742)

  14. Still, it’s the wrong language.

    Please explain how.

    And what is the “right” language?

    Patterico (8b6cc4)

  15. Its a subjective opinion, it can’t have pinocchios if Kessler wasn’t a hack.

    SPQR (768505)

  16. SF: Still, it’s the wrong language.

    Comment by Patterico (8b6cc4) — 11/23/2013 @ 8:04 pm

    Please explain how.

    There can only be one deciding vote. Otherwise they would be deciding votes (plural) And how is she the most crucial Senator?

    And what is the “right” language?

    Mary Landrieu was a necessary vote. One less Senator in favor and it wouldn’t have been able to become law. She voted that way because her party wanted her to, not because she thought it would be a good law – and it isn’t.

    If Mary Landrieu wants to argue that she thought it was a good law – let her. If she wants to argue she made a deal for Louisiana, argue it was a bad deal.

    Sammy Finkelman (8cd742)

  17. Failed in closing the italics again.

    She voted to make it possible for the bill to pass, and it needed every last vote it got.

    Sammy Finkelman (8cd742)

  18. Here is the actual right language:

    She cast the deciding vote.

    Patterico (3ff87e)

  19. She didn’t cast the deciding vote, because there can only be one deciding vote, and there is no argument to be made that it was hers.

    She voted for cloture and it needed every last vote it got. That’s the way to put it.

    Even more, it wasn’t because she believed it to be a good bill. Let her try to argue the contrary.

    Sammy Finkelman (8cd742)

  20. Landrieu’s own words are damning enough- “If they don’t like Obamacare, they can unelect me.”

    Okee dokee.

    Lasue (2b0ffb)

  21. 19 20

    I agree with SF here, saying “the” is slightly misleading. I would prefer “an essential vote”. But it is absurd to rate such a statement “mostly false” as Polifact did.

    James B. Shearer (878baf)

  22. Link in name, but yeah. Republicans have no reason to trust these fact checkers. They are not neutral; they are not journalists.

    Matt S. (232347)

  23. I believe I first read about this in P.J. O’Rourke’s Parliament of Whores. Basically, whenever anything semi-important is going to pass by one vote, there is a desperate scramble to get a second vote for it to pass by.

    Why? Exactly this reason; because every vote was the ‘critical, deciding vote’. Usually they can haul in someone who’s sick or wasn’t able to make the vote that day or trade a courtesy vote from the other party on the understanding that it’ll get passed somehow.

    But there were no additional or courtesy votes available. Ted Kennedy was voting from his deathbed through the process and no Republican would want to trade.

    luagha (6bfb8d)

  24. It wasn’t THE deciding vote. It was a deciding vote. 60 Democrats voted for it. They couldn’t have all been the deciding vote. “The” refers to a single entity, whereas “a” refers to one of many. If Harry Reid didn’t vote for the bill, it wouldn’t have passed. Does that make Reid the deciding vote? I can hear people saying, No, Harry Reid’s vote was never in question. But what about Ben Nelson? He was also one of the Democrats who took cajoling for vote for it. Ben Nelson was the deciding vote! If Nelson was the deciding vote, than Landrue couldn’t have been the deciding vote. See what the fact is? There wasn’t a single deciding vote. There were 60 votes, ALL of which were needed to pass the bill, and it is impossible to pick a single one to be “the deciding vote.” Thus Landrue wasn’t “the deciding vote.”

    Mitch (2ed1c3)

  25. Interestingly, another ad says that Pryor was the deciding vote. That ad proves that Landrue wasn’t the deciding vote. Or else this ad proves that Pryor wasn’t the deciding vote.

    So why doesn’t the ad simply attack Landrue for voting for Obamacare?

    When you make false claims like “the deciding vote” then you simply distract from your point.

    Mitch (2ed1c3)

  26. To illustrate the absurdity of this charge, look at the Tea Party Patriots attack ads:

    Mark Warner: The Deciding Vote for Obamacare
    420 views 1 month ago

    Thumbnail 0:31 Watch Later
    Mark Udall: The Deciding Vote for Obamacare
    467 views 1 month ago

    Thumbnail WATCHED 0:31 Watch Later
    Mark Pryor: The Deciding Vote for Obamacare
    301 views 1 month ago
    Thumbnail Watch Later
    Mary Landrieu: The Deciding Vote for Obamacare
    475 views 1 month ago

    Thumbnail 0:31 Watch Later
    Kay Hagan: The Deciding Vote for Obamacare
    679 views 1 month ago

    Thumbnail 0:31 Watch Later
    Al Franken: The Deciding Vote for Obamacare
    435 views 1 month ago

    Mitch (2ed1c3)

  27. (Just be clear, I’m not the Mitch making the strained argument against the “the deciding vote” language.)

    Sorry, that’s just ludicrous. Every one of the 60 votes for Obamacare in the Senate is fairly described as THE deciding vote. Just as in a basketball game won by 1 point, it is no cliche when the player who scored the FINAL basket humbly points out that every other basket scored by his team was also THE deciding one.

    I understand the hypertechnical argument about “the” (sometimes, at least) implying only one of something, but that simply isn’t how most people talk — or expect others to.

    And even if some voters disagreed with you, so what? Is an anti-Obamacare voter likely to switch, and to support Landrieu (or others of The Sixty), once he finds out, “Oh, she wasn’t the final, 60th vote. She cast her Aye vote somewhere earlier than the 60th one.” Riiiiight.

    Mitch (341ca0)

  28. Say: Without her vote, the legislation would have failed.

    Sammy Finkelman (6ee5be)

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