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See, This Is How You Should Write About Policy

Bloggers who write about politics, myself included, spend a lot of time criticizing the media's coverage of policy debates. And nothing draws our ire like coverage that reduces everything to an on-the-one-hand/on-the-other-hand equivalence, even when one side is clearly being more candid than the other.

But if we're going to complain about bad coverage, I think we have an obligation to praise good coverage. And we have such an occasion today.

Actually, it was Wednesday, in the form of a David Leonhardt column for the New York Times. Leonhardt covers economics for the Times and, in my opinion, does an excelent job of it. I don't always agree with his take. But Leonhardt--who, full disclosure, praised my book a while ago--is smart and isn't afraid to say what he thinks.

Fortunately, that's exactly what he did in his column about the McCain economic agenda. 

...there are some big unanswered questions about Mr. McCain’s economic plans. And we in the media have largely overlooked those questions so far. On foreign policy, pundits have rightly pointed out that Mr. Obama will have to get more specific about his Iraq plans, given the recent improvements there. But on fiscal policy, the coverage has generally treated the candidates as equally bad.

As the conventional wisdom has it, neither senator has been serious about the long-term budget deficit; both have made rosy assumptions about the revenue that will come from cracking down on waste, fraud, abuse, overseas tax loopholes and other vague fiscal bogeymen.

All this is true enough. Mr. Obama, for instance, relies on hypothetical savings from electronic medical records to claim that he can reduce the deficit, and he hasn’t been totally clear about his tax plans. But the unknowns about the McCain agenda are simply on a different scale.

Leonhardt goes on to note--correctly--that McCain is "having it both ways." Although McCain promises huge tax and spending cuts in his speeches, Leonhardt explains, the actual budget proposals his campaign has given to analysts promises much less. In other words, he tells the public what they want to hear (lower taxes!) and he tells the analysts what they want to hear (fiscal responsibility!).

Leonhardt ends the column by asking McCain to clarify what he intends to do about the Alternative Minimum Tax and what exactly McCain means by "tax simplification." He also challenges the McCain campaign to stop using mathematical gimmicks to cover up the huge deficits their agenda would likely impose.

I don't expect McCain to respond. The truth is that his promises of huge tax cuts and balanced budgets are irreconcilable. But that's why a column like Leonhardt's is so important.

Edit: Cleaned up grammar and misspellings. 

--Jonathan Cohn