Facts have taken a beating in Campaign '08.
Each in his own way, John McCain and Barack Obama have produced enduring myths, amplified by their running mates and supporters. When a non-licensed plumber who owes back taxes and would get a tax cut under Obama is held out by McCain as a stand-in for average working Americans who should vote Republican, you know truth-telling is taking a back seat to myth-making.
McCain has clung tenaciously to many of his distortions throughout the campaign, yielding on a few.
Obama has taken a different tack when he is called on his misstatements. Although perhaps too late to really set the record straight, he's edged closer to the facts.
You might need a microscope to tell the difference, but slight variations in a pitch or accusation can make all the difference between bogus and real.
Obama saddled McCain with a bum rap when he accused the Republican of wanting a 100-year war in Iraq back in the spring. Finally he relented and said McCain sees U.S. troops being in Iraq for 100 years. That's closer to right — as a peacekeeping force like the one in South Korea. But McCain might be long associated with war without end.
Obama accused McCain of wanting to privatize Social Security, which he doesn't. Now he accuses McCain of wanting to privatize "part" of Social Security, which he does, as one option that younger workers could choose.
For his part, McCain has blithely carried on with a variety of discredited claims, abetted by a running mate whose exuberance is not at all dimmed by contrary evidence.
Sarah Palin repeated her boast that she declared "thanks but no thanks for that bridge to nowhere" long after it became clear she had said no such thing — neither in words nor in essence.
McCain's down-to-the-wire accusation that Obama "will raise your taxes" contradicts Obama's tax-cut proposals for all but wealthy Americans. His dark warnings that Obama will fine small businesses that do not provide health insurance goes against a plan by the Democrat that exempts small businesses from paying for coverage. In fact, Obama would give them money to help them offer insurance.
Beyond the realm of exaggeration and misrepresentation, omission plays a large part, too, in denying voters important information on what the next president will do.
Neither candidate has owned up to the budget crunch that is certain to crimp their promises, send the country far deeper into debt, or both. Obama's assertion that his cost savings more than pay for his programs, and McCain's statement that he'll freeze most government spending and balance the budget in four years, are not believed outside their campaigns and circles of allies.
Some of the myths:
"We have to stop sending $700 billion a year to countries that don't like us very much," McCain says, again and again.
That's a seriously inflated figure cited by McCain for the value of U.S. oil imports from countries hostile to America. In fact, the government says the U.S. spent less than half that sum on crude oil and refined petroleum projects from foreign sources last year, and most were from friendly countries such as Canada, Mexico and Britain.
Obama upped the stakes when he used the figure, boiling the vast web of oil and debt transactions down to two countries: "Nothing is more important than us no longer borrowing $700 billion or more from China and sending it to Saudi Arabia," he said. "It's mortgaging our children's future."
Health care horrors
It only takes McCain and Palin a few words to bend Obama's health care plan out of recognition.
McCain tells supporters he "won't fine small businesses and families with children, as Senator Obama proposes, to force them into a new, huge, government-run health care program, while I keep the cost of the fine a secret until I hit you with it."
Palin talks about Obama's "universal government-run program" and adds: "I don't think it's going to be real pleasing for Americans to consider health care being taken over by the Feds."
Obama's plan doesn't fine small businesses. It doesn't force families with children, or anyone, into government-run health care. And the Feds wouldn't be taking over the system.
Between them, McCain and Palin got one part of it half right: Obama has not said how much he would fine larger companies if they do not meet his requirement to offer health insurance or pay into a kitty.
McCain's health plan is distorted, in turn, by Obama.
"Your health care benefits will get taxed for the first time in history," Obama warns voters in attacking it. He often leads voters to think that's the full story. Hardly.
McCain, in exchange for proposing to tax the value of health benefits provided by employers, would offer a tax credit to help people buy insurance. That tax benefit — $5,000 for a family — gives people much more than the new taxation takes away.
Over time, the tax credit could lose value as premiums rise faster.
But that's not an argument the Democratic ticket has chosen to make, in speeches, debates and relentless advertising. Running mate Joe Biden mischaracterized the new taxation as the largest middle-class tax increase in history, ignoring the credits in a rhetorical exercise that would flunk Accounting 101.
That darned bridge
When Palin ran for governor, she indicated her support for a proposal to build a nearly $400 million bridge from Ketchikan, Alaska, to an island with 50 residents and an airport. She was, at times, wishy-washy about it.
But that doesn't make for a compelling line against government waste on the stump.
So her stance became: "I told the Congress 'thanks but no thanks' for that Bridge to Nowhere." And a campaign ad declared she "stopped the Bridge to Nowhere."
Actually, during her governor's campaign, she vowed to defend Southeast Alaska "when proposals are on the table like the bridge, and not allow the spinmeisters to turn this project or any other into something that's so negative." At the time, the chief "spinmeister" against the project was McCain.
As governor, she abandoned the bridge after Washington pulled the money from it, letting the federal dollars be used for other projects in the state.
In September, her transportation department completed a $25 million gravel road to nowhere. Officials went ahead with the road, which would have led to the bridge, even though it has no purpose other than for foot races, hunting vehicles and possible future development.
Guilt by association
William Ayers, a University of Illinois education professor and former member of the radical Weather Underground, was front and center in Republican claims that Obama was "palling around with terrorists," as Palin put it. Ayers had a meet-the-candidate event in his home for Obama early in the Democrat's political career. The two served on the board of the Woods Fund. And they live in the same neighborhood.
McCain and Palin stretched the extent of that relationship to link Obama with shadowy figures.
Beyond that, they falsely implied that Ayers used the occasion of the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks to wish even greater harm.
"We don't care about an old washed-up terrorist and his wife, who still, at least on Sept. 11, 2001, said he still wanted to bomb more," McCain told a rally.
This distortion originated in Hillary Rodham Clinton's playbook during the primaries, when she criticized Obama for the same relationship.
Ayers, Clinton said, made comments "which were deeply hurtful to people in New York and, I would hope, to every American, because they were published on 9/11, and he said that he was just sorry they hadn't done more."
By coincidence, The New York Times published a story on the day of the attacks about Ayers and what he called his fictionalized memoirs. The story was based on an interview he had done earlier, in Chicago, in which he declared, "I don't regret setting bombs," and "I feel we didn't do enough," even while seeming to dissociate himself coyly from the group's most destructive acts.
Late in the campaign, McCain and Palin criticized Obama for attending a 2003 party for Rashid Khalidi, a Palestinian-American professor and critic of Israel. But McCain is also linked Khalidi. The professor was a founder of the Center for Palestine Research and Studies, which received $448,000 from an organization McCain chairs.
A look at some of the figures often cited during this campaign:
- $4 billion: "John, you want to give oil companies another $4 billion" in tax breaks, Obama told McCain in a debate. In fact, McCain supports a cut in income taxes for all corporations, and doesn't single out any one industry for that benefit.
- $2,500: That's how much Obama says his health care plan will bring down costs for a family of four. Obama's plan does not lower premiums by $2,500, or any set amount. Obama hopes that by spending $50 billion over five years on electronic medical records and by improving access to proven disease management programs, among other steps, consumers will end up saving money. He uses an optimistic analysis to suggest cost reductions in national health care spending could amount to the equivalent of $2,500 for a family of four over time. Even if savings that large are achieved — economists are highly skeptical — not every dollar is bound to be passed on to consumers.
- 94: That's how many times McCain and Palin say that Obama has voted for tax increases or not to support a tax cut. This inflated count includes repetitive votes as well as votes to cut taxes for the middle class while raising them on the rich. An analysis by factcheck.org found that 23 of the votes were for measures that would have produced no tax increase at all, seven were in favor of measures that would have lowered taxes for many, 11 would have increased taxes on only those making more than $1 million a year.
- $882 billion: "Senator McCain would pay for part of his plan by making drastic cuts in Medicare — $882 billion worth," Obama said. Obama ads claim McCain would cut benefits by 22 percent. McCain's plan proposes neither. He wants to save money the same way Obama wants to — by making programs such as Medicare more efficient. Obama's claim misrepresents what a McCain adviser said in a Wall Street Journal story and adds distorted analysis from a partisan think tank to come up with something that goes against what McCain says he would do — protect promised benefits from being cut.