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PolitiFact whacks Pawlenty, but without target's input

On Sept. 24, Gov. Tim Pawlenty’s proto-presidential campaign took an inaugural drubbing at the hands of PolitiFact.com, the St. Petersburg Times’ Pulitzer Prize-winning fact-checker.

Politifact awarded Pawlenty a "Full Flop" for opposing a federal cap-and-trade greenhouse gas-reducing plan after supporting a slightly less ambitious Minnesota goal two years earlier.

The local media picked up on PolitiFact’s judgment, which was supported with four documents, two Minnesota Public Radio stories, and interviews with two environmentalists plus oft-quoted political science prof Steven Schier.

What was missing? A comment from the governor’s office.

As regular readers know, I’m not a fan of he-said, she-said journalism, which can obscure the truth. And I agree with PolitiFact’s verdict, which fleshed out a dynamic first noted Aug. 30 by Star Tribune editorial columnist Nick Coleman.

But as a regular PolitiFact fan, one of my favorite moments is when they pin the duplicitous politician (or spokesperson) to the wall. And of course, there’s always an outside chance the politico can straddle the breach. So it was surprising Pawlenty’s explanation was nowhere to be found.

'I wish we had called his office'
As it turns out, the item was written by Catharine Richert, a former Congressional Quarterly writer whose work includes a handful of MinnPost pieces, the last in February. She essentially covered ground that MPR's Tom Scheck plowed earlier.

Catharine bumped my questions up to PolitiFact editor Bill Adair, who explained, “[T]his was an analysis, not a news story, so we often find sufficient material in the public record to make our judgments for Flip-O-Meter items. But in hindsight, I wish we had called his office to get his perspective on his change of position.”

Seeking an epic straddle, or an entertaining whitewash, I emailed Brian McClung, Gov. Pawlenty’s deputy chief of staff and spokesman. After taking a whack at his tormentors — “If a media outlet intends to offer a ‘fact check,’ you’d hope they would contact the people they are checking” — McClung spoke to the issue at hand:

“We all share the goal of reducing pollution and emissions, but it’s appropriate to debate how best to do that. Governor Pawlenty believes we should take action to make reductions without wrecking the economy. The Democratic plan in Washington contains massive tax increases and job-stifling regulations. We believe a better approach would be to focus on things like conservation, energy efficiency, significantly increasing the use of emission-free nuclear energy, and utilizing hybrid and alternative fuel source vehicles.”

Well ... ok. Now you know why we don’t always wait for spokespeople.

McClung implies that the actions Pawlenty supported contain neither “massive tax increases” nor “job-stifling” regulations. However, in the email, he didn’t really detail the differences.

TPaw's two cap-and-trade initiatives
Complicating the fact check are two distinct Pawlenty actions. In 2007, he signed into law the "Next Generation Energy Act," which committed the state to specific emissions reductions. Richert focuses on this legislation at the start of her PolitiFact piece.

McClung says the law did not require cap-and-trade, and the phrase is nowhere to be found in its 38 pages. However, the Minnesota law did require state officials to appoint a group that would review just such an option and submit a plan to the 2008 legislature.

According to the law, "The plan must determine the feasibility, assess the costs and benefits [of] a regulatory system that imposes a cap on the aggregate air pollutant emissions of a group of sources ... and allows for market-based trading of those allowances."

Later that year, Pawlenty took his second action, signing on to a multi-state Midwestern compact that also include "market-based" cap-and-trade. It didn't include specific emissions goals, which were left up to the states.

The concept's fine, the implementation isn't
In a follow-up call, McClung insisted the flop was nothing of the sort. Pawlenty hasn't reversed himself on cap-and-trade, he just doesn't like the Democrats' brand of it.

McClung contrasted the governor's state-level actions to the so-called "Markey-Waxman Bill," introduced by two U.S. House Democrats. He termed the state's greenhouse-gas reductions "goals" versus Markey-Waxman’s "requirements." He said federal Democrats insist on gubernatorially unacceptable penalties and levies on polluting businesses.

For example: In a June 24, 2009 letter to Minnesota’s congressional delegation, Pawlenty urged "free [pollution] allowances to producers" instead of an auction that would force polluters to pay up front. Markey-Waxman would auction 15 percent of pollution permits (far too few, according to some environmentalists). The money could be used to subsidize low-income ratepayers and invest in renewable energy and efficiency.

I asked McClung if a cynic couldn’t argue Pawlenty's goals-based, penalty-lite approach was ultimately vague and toothless? Perhaps we all made too much of Pawlenty's 2007 actions and headline-grabbing proclamations, which look increasingly symbolic — especially since, Scheck notes, "Pawlenty also hasn't acted on any findings from the Minnesota Climate Change Advisory Group," the advisory body the legislation established.

"A cynic could make that argument, but the fact is that Minnesota is on track to meeting goals," McClung replied. "Our trendline is headed in the right direction. We’re on course, regardless of whether or not there are teeth in the legislation."

So McClung's ultimate point is that Pawlenty hasn't flopped on the cap-and-trade concept. It's just that he's never expressed support for a punitive system, however unrealistic the alternative may be.

In the end, though, McClung tacitly ratified PolitiFact’s verdict, noting Pawlenty is now actively encouraging cap-and-trade alternatives, such as the “cap-and-reduce” plan that doesn't feature a permit-trading marketplace but did cut acid rain. “We’re suggesting another way to do it, rather than burdening businesses with massive tax increases," he says.

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Comments (1)

This really sounds like you are expecting a kind of due diligence that wouldn’t get you any closer to something like objective truth, which organizations like PolitiFact and FactCheck tend to do so well. I certainly appreciate the opportunity to "pin the duplicitous politician (or spokesperson) to the wall," but I don't think that's the point here. And McClung could not have been more successful in proving this point, by claiming that the phrase "cap-and-trade" is nowhere to be found in the "Next Generation Energy Act." Technically true though that may be, you immediately point out that, while the phrase "cap-and-trade" may not explicitly show up, the concept clearly does (unless I misunderstand?). I think this may be a case where an attempt to appear objective and get “both sides of the story” would overshadow a true objective reporting of Pawlenty’s claim.