Thursday, September 18, 2008

Politics: McCain and Palin Tell the Truth Less

TORONTO, ONTARIO - A quick look at the Truth-O-Meter shows Republican presidential nominee John McCain as having made six statements that were so egregiously untrue that they resulted in a "pants-on-fire" rating. The Democrats' nominee, Barack Obama, has made none. In the false category, John McCain is cited for twenty-three statements. Obama is cited for eighteen, but most were about Hillary Clinton, not McCain. Of 116 statements from McCain that were evaluated, just twenty-five were unquestionably true, or 22%. Of 116 statements from Obama that were evaluated, just forty were unquestionably true, but at 43%, that's almost double McCain's number. It is clear that McCain tells the truth less often than Obama.

Democratic vice-presidential nominee Joe Biden has been cited for two "pants on fire" statements earlier in the campaign. One could not possibly be taken seriously, when he stated in 2007 that President Bush "is brain dead," and the other was an accusation that Rudy Giuliani was unqualified to be president, which is not exactly relevant to the current campaign. Neither was an accusation about the McCain campaign, in contrast with most of McCain's false statements actually being about the Obama campaign.

Republican vice-presidential nominee Sarah Palin looks clean until one realizes that how misleading some of her statements have been. The "Truth-O-Meter" doesn't properly indict spin, statements that are technically true but are grossly misleading. Sarah Palin gets a "half-true" for her famous statement that "I told the Congress 'thanks, but no thanks,' on that Bridge to Nowhere," despite the fact that she supported the project until Congress had already killed it, then opposed it--but since she did oppose it in the end, it doesn't count as a lie. A similar situation applies with respect to earmarks; Palin does oppose them now and should be commended for that, but it is clear that she solicited them as mayor of Wasilla by hiring a lobbyist. Palin also gets a "half-true" for stating that "Barack Obama supports plans to raise 'income taxes ... payroll taxes.'" That's only true for people with incomes over $200,000, less than 5% of the electorate. For 95% of people, that statement is not true. It may not qualify as a lie under the "Truth-O-Meter," but it would qualify for my favorite term, "inappropriate discourse."

Yet, despite the fact that income and payroll taxes would go down for at least 90% of the electorate under the Obama proposal, a Gallup poll indicates that 53% of Americans believe that their taxes would go up if Obama is elected. Clearly, the "inappropriate discourse" from the Republicans is effective.

Two of McCain's "true" statements strike me as completely irrelevant. I find the sales of "Mamma Mia!" and tales about his grandfather to have no bearing on the campaign. Similarly, I don't care about Obama's claim about "Wild Bill" Hickok either, but one statement in forty looks a lot less distracting than two of twenty-five.

Not only does the Obama campaign make fewer certified false claims, it tends to correct the false claims that it does make. This topic was discussed at length during a forum at the University of Minnesota's Humphrey Institute aired on Minnesota Public Radio's midday show on Monday. For example, during the Democratic convention when Joe Biden claimed that John McCain had voted with President Bush's position 95% of the time, the fact-checking organizations determined that the real number was 90%. When Barack Obama spoke at the end of the convention, he used the correct number, and the campaign has been using it ever since. Similarly, an Obama claim that he "worked his way through college" was dropped after the fact-checking organizations demonstrated that this was a half-truth. Obama now more accurately claims to have gotten through college with scholarships and summer jobs.

In contrast, the fact-checkers could cite few examples of the McCain campaign backing off of false positions, and none were central to the campaign. McCain's blatantly false claims about the Obama tax plan and Sarah Palin's gross misrepresentations of her position on earmarks continue to be in their stump speeches to this day.

Of course, none of this actually matters to the electorate. McCain and Palin will get away with blatantly false statements right up until the election. The only thing that matters is the voter's perception of the truth, the topic of a future post.

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