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Playing Balz

Washington Post news analyst Dan Balz has written a missive to the campaign press corps urging them to, well, there's no other way to put it: start holding Barack Obama to a higher standard than his opponent. Balz is one of the most prestigious members of the Washington press corps, and his commentary has already been fronted by conventional wisdom-arbiter The Page, so it's likely to be influential.

Why should the press train its sights on Obama? Balz says because the election is all but over:

He leads nationally in the latest Washington Post-ABC News poll by 53 percent to 43 percent. He leads, too, by a wide margin in estimates of the Electoral College. Virtually all of the closest states left at this point voted for President Bush four years ago.

The presidential race is not over, but at this point, Obama has a better chance of becoming president than McCain, and as a result, the questions ought to be going toward him as much or more than McCain  

In other words, Balz argues, Obama should be treated as if he's already president, rather than as one of two candidates for the presidency. I suppose that, if you think the election is truly a formality, an argument could be made for skipping ahead to post-election coverage. Yet, a few paragraphs later, Balz says that it's important that this new phase of one-sided inquiry happen now so that voters can potentially decide if they want Obama at all:

It would be helpful to voters to know now, rather than after the election, whether [Obama] will take a zero-based look at everything and rearrange priorities.

Does this make any sense? Balz is saying that voters need to know all these things about Obama (he does not say they need to know this about McCain) before the election. Why before the election? It can only be because they might decide they prefer McCain instead. But why should voters be making this decision on the basis of how they judge Obama, rather than an even comparison between the two candidates? Balz is saying that the press should give Obama the scrutiny of an incumbent president so that voters can potentially choose somebody else to be president. I suppose that if voters decide to start flocking to McCain, Balz's logic would compel him to urge the press corps to start suddenly applying one-sided scrutiny to the GOP candidate -- unless it happened too late.

I'm on favor of rigorous, intelligent questioning of both candidates. But the first "questions" Balz proposes aren't really questions at all but opinions that the press corps is apparently supposed to adopt. Balz:

[Obama] stayed in close contact with Henry Paulson and Ben Bernanke and with Democratic congressional leaders. He both embraced the sense of urgency to act on the $700 billion bailout package and offered criticisms of the administration's initially sketchy plan. His criticisms were in line with changes that Congress made before eventually approving the package.

But it's not clear that he has had any better ideas -- or put them forward more aggressively -- than Paulson and Bernanke when it comes to dealing with the crisis in the credit markets. It's not clear that he has pushed ideas that would have dealt with the crisis more effectively. At every turn, he has voiced support for the general course the administration has outlined, but he's not been far out ahead.

What? First he says that Obama proposed different ideas than the administration, but then says it's not clear that he has any better ideas. I suppose Balz could believe that Obama's opinions are no better than Paulson's. That's a subjective judgment, though not many economists --- nor even, by this point, Paulson himself -- would agree with him. But clearly, as Balz just admitted in the previous paragraph, Obama did have different ideas.

Balz proceeds to propose more questions:

Nor is it evident that [Obama] has dealt realistically with the impact the economic crisis may have on the next president. He has not backed away from ambitious plans for a second stimulus package, for dramatically expanding health care, for reducing dependence on foreign oil or for other spending plans that long have been part of his campaign agenda.

First of all, this question has been asked -- in all three presidential and vice-presidential debates, while vast areas of domestic and foreign policy have been ignored. Second, the question is economically illiterate. Virtually any economists would agree that, to the extent that domestic spending makes any sense, its rationale is stronger, not weaker, during a recession. Certainly many conservative economists would oppose Obama's spending plans under any circumstances. No economist would favor them under normal conditions but oppose them due to the recession.

Balz flays Obama because he "has not backed away from ambitious plans for a second stimulus package." Of course he hasn't backed away from his stimulus plans because of the recession. He came up with it as a response to the recession. That's what a stimulus package is. Bill Clinton scaled back his plans for a stimulus package in 1993 because the economy was getting better and no longer needed it.

Balz then proposes a series of questions about whether Obama is a "pragmatist" or "ideologically oriented," and whether he'll pursue bipartisanship if elected. Okay, fine. Shouldn't the press be asking this of both candidates before the election? Balz covers himself by adding that "both candidates" should get these questions, but "especially" Obama. I've heard reporters admit that coverage can be biased for one reason or another -- ideology, desire for a close race, personal afinity for one of the candidates -- but I've never before seen one openly propose a double standard.

--Jonathan Chait