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When false claims drive the debate

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As best as I can tell, New York Times columnist David Brooks is a well-connected pundit. Powerful people return his phone calls, and when he wants information from top governmental offices, Brooks tends to get it.

And with this in mind, it's puzzling that Brooks based his entire column today on an easily-checked error. The conservative pundit insists President Obama "declines to come up with a proposal to address" next week's sequester mess, adding, "The president hasn't actually come up with a proposal to avert sequestration."

I'll never understand how conservative media personalities get factual claims like this so very wrong. If Brooks doesn't like Obama's sequester alternative, fine; he can write a column explaining his concerns. But why pretend the president's detailed, already published plan, built on mutual concessions from both sides, doesn't exist? If you're David Brooks, why don't you just pick up the phone, call the West Wing, and say, "Do you folks have a proposal to address the sequester or not?" I'm certain an administration official would help him by sending him exactly what he's looking for, and then he wouldn't have to publish claims that are demonstrably wrong.

In the larger context, Brooks' deeply unfortunate error is symptomatic of a larger problem: as sequestration approaches, we're stuck in a debate in which facts seem to have very little meaning.

"President Obama has said that unless he gets a second tax hike in eight weeks, he will be forced to let criminals loose on the streets, the meat at your grocery store won't be inspected and emergency responders will be unable to do their jobs," [House Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R-Va.)] said in his statement.

"These are false choices. We are faced with the negative effects of the sequester because Democrats have not been able to take even the smallest step towards controlling spending."

Why lie like this? Cantor surely knows that President Obama has already accepted over $1.2 trillion in spending cuts. Cantor surely knows over $2.4 trillion in debt reduction has already happened. Cantor surely knows the deficit has nearly been cut in half over the last four years. Cantor surely knows Obama has offered to accept another $600 billion in spending cuts as part of a sequester compromise. So why put out a statement based on claims that aren't true?

The country is facing a real threat next week and there's room a worthwhile debate, but it's important for the public to understand that a constructive discussion is impossible when there's no shared basis for reality.