With two presidential debates and one vice presidential debate already behind us, fact-checkers across the nation must be pulling their hair out. A brief survey of factcheck.org sheds some important light on the many claims and figures that have been tossed around in the last two weeks, revealing little concern from either ticket for the facts of the matter. Why is this the case? And must we simply resign ourselves to this dismal state of affairs?
Take a look at this list from last night’s debate, for example:
- Obama challenged Romney to “get the transcript” when Romney questioned the president’s claim to have spoken of an “act of terror” the day after the slaying of four Americans in Libya. The president indeed referred to “acts of terror” that day, but then refrained from using such terms for weeks.
- Obama claimed Romney once called Arizona’s “papers, please” immigration law a “model” for the nation. He didn’t. Romney said that of an earlier Arizona law requiring employers to check the immigration status of employees.
- Obama falsely claimed Romney once referred to wind-power jobs as “imaginary.” Not true. Romney actually spoke of “an imaginary world” where “windmills and solar panels could power the economy.”
- Romney said repeatedly he won’t cut taxes for the wealthy, a switch from his position during the GOP primaries, when he said the top 1 percent would be among those to benefit.
- Romney said “a recent study has shown” that taxes “will” rise on the middle class by $4,000 as a result of federal debt increases since Obama took office. Not true. That’s just one possible way debt service could be financed.
- Romney claimed 580,000 women have lost jobs under Obama. The true figure is closer to 93,000.
- Romney claimed the automakers’ bankruptcy that Obama implemented was “precisely what I recommend.” Romney did favor a bankruptcy followed by federal loan guarantees, but not the direct federal aid that Obama insists was essential.
- Romney said he would keep Pell Grants for low-income college students “growing.” That’s a change. Both Romney and his running mate, Ryan, have previously said they’d limit eligibility.
Furthermore, and more disconcerting, they note,
Both candidates repeated false or misleading claims they have made, and we have rebutted, many times before. Obama repeated his claim that he wouldn’t put tax rates for affluent families higher than they were under Bill Clinton. Actually, he’s already signed two new taxes that will also fall on those same high-income persons. And Romney accused Obama of saying “no” to the Keystone XL pipeline. Actually, no final decision has been made, and the company says it expects to win approval and start construction early next year.
Not only have President Obama and Governor Romney failed to properly represent the facts, but two weeks after such misrepresentations have been pointed out, they are still singing the same tune. And their running mates were no exception last Thursday:
[B]oth Biden and Ryan continued to twist the facts about Romney’s tax plan. Biden again misrepresented the findings of the nonpartisan Tax Policy Center, and Ryan repeated a misleading claim that “six studies have verified” that the plan is mathematically possible.
Wishing to be charitable, I might characterize the politicians vying for our nation’s highest offices as “repeatedly mistaken,” but somewhere along the line someone on both sides is simply choosing to overlook the facts, unless we are to believe that both our president and his challenger have hired utterly incompetent researchers to support their campaigns—hardly a concession that instills me with much confidence in either of them. Discounting this unlikely possibility, the only logical conclusion is that the facts of the matter aren’t getting any lip service because the candidates do not believe that the facts actually matter to American voters. They are saying what they think people want to hear, intentionally ignoring reality and the hard choices needed to change our country for the better. And they are content to portray their opponents in the worst light with such misleading claims.
For this election, neither major party’s candidates show any signs of wavering from such empty rhetoric. But I wonder, is such a thing really as inconceivable as we so often assume? Many of us have grown accustomed to expect this from our politicians, even at times making excuses that such misrepresentation is a necessary part of political persuasion. But what sort of response would a candidate have if they were able to say to the American people, “Check the facts: my claims hold up; my opponent’s don’t” and have it actually be the truth? What other campaign strategy would be needed? Truth, I think, is grossly underrated all around. As Aristotle notes, a person’s character is “the most effective means of persuasion he possesses.” A candidate that could show that the claims he/she makes are actually reliable would have a huge persuasive advantage, and rightly so. Indeed, a politician could even build a reputation around it (e.g. “Honest Abe” Lincoln).
Is there an untapped market for candidates with integrity who actually use reliable information in their rhetoric? I think so. But until demand more dramatically changes for the facts of the matter, we ought not to expect the supply of pandering statistics and misleading claims to diminish. The market for cheap and mangled “facts” appears to be too strong for the time being.