Lies, Damned Lies, and Barack Obama

Why isn’t Obama stretching the truth more often?

Since July, John McCain and his campaign have made 11 political claims that are barely true, eight that are categorically false, and three that you’d have to call pants-on-fire lies —a total of 22 clearly deceptive statements (many of them made repeatedly in ads and stump speeches). Barack Obama and Joe Biden, meanwhile, have put out eight bare truths, four untruths, and zero pants-on-fire lies—12 false claims. These stats and categories come from PolitiFact, but the story looks pretty much the same if you count up fabrications documented by FactCheck.org or the Washington Post’s Fact Checker, the other truth-squad operations working the race: During the past two and a half months, McCain has lied more often and more outrageously than Obama. (Click here for a few caveats in this analysis.)

Of course, it isn’t possible to prove in any scientific manner that McCain is being more deceptive than Obama. Even if we could pin down every lie that each candidate tells, we’d never be able to reach a consensus about the seriousness of each deception. When the candidates spoke at Rick Warren’s megachurch in August, both stretched the truth slightly. Which of their falsehoods is worse—Obama’s claim that the abortion rate hasn’t declined during the Bush years (it has), or McCain’s claim that he’d give a $7,000 per-child tax credit to families when in fact his tax plan calls for a slight increase in the exemption on families’ taxable income?

Your answer depends on several factors—whether you care more about abortion or taxes, whether you’re inclined to ascribe the candidates’ deceptions to error or to political calculation, and, of course, whether you’re supporting Obama or McCain. Judging political lies is a bit like trying to evaluate bad American Idol performances; we agree that they all kind of suck, but we can still have endless fights about which ones suck the least.

Some of McCain’s recent claims, though, are the William Hungs of political lies: so heroically deceptive that anyone not blinded by partisanship feels the urge to cover his ears. Take McCain’s ad claiming that Obama’s “one accomplishment” on education policy was to push “legislation to teach ‘comprehensive sex education’ to kindergartners.” It’s difficult to find a single true word in the whole spot. The Illinois Senate bill the ad refers to was not Obama’s legislation. (He voted for it but didn’t write or sponsor it.) It was not an “accomplishment”—the bill didn’t pass. Nor did it advocate teaching kids about sex before they learned to read, as McCain claims; it envisioned “age-appropriate” language instructing children on “preventing sexual assault,” among other dangers, and it allowed parents to hold their kids out of these classes.

Obama, too, has run deceptive ads. He stretched the truth in blaming McCain for job losses in Ohio stemming from a DHL air cargo deal. He selectively edited a McCain quote to suggest that the senator favors trucking nuclear waste through Nevada but not through his home state of Arizona—a trick that renders the spot barely true. And Obama claimed that McCain doesn’t support loan guarantees for the auto industry, which used to be true but no longer is. But Obama’s ads employ the routine deceptions of politics—they exaggerate the opponent’s positions, they play fast and loose with dates, they draw convenient inferences from strings of unrelated events. Yet they also contain a few actual facts. That’s not high praise, but it reaches a higher standard than McCain’s accusation that Obama called Sarah Palin a pig. Or McCain’s insinuation that FactCheck.org found Obama making “false” attacks on Palin—a complete distortion of FactCheck’s finding that anonymous e-mailers were attacking Palin.

The McCain camp’s other sin is one of repetition: They keep saying things that have been proved untrue. In TV ads and nearly every stump speech, Palin has repeated the line that she stopped the federal government’s plan to build the “bridge to nowhere,” a claim that fact-check sites and nearly every major news organization have shot down. McCain keeps running ads—in English and Spanish—stating that Obama would raise taxes on the middle class when Obama’s plan would actually lower taxes for most people.

On several occasions, meanwhile, Obama has adjusted his message when called out by fact-checkers. In February, Obama said that McCain believed the Iraq war would last 100 years; when fact-checking sites pointed out that McCain was referring to the peacetime presence in Iraq, Obama ditched the claim. Last month PolitiFact wrote that Biden was wrong to say McCain voted with Bush 95 percent of the time. Shortly thereafter, the Obama camp began using a more accurate measure, 90 percent.

This is exactly what’s so puzzling about Obama’s strategy—why is he paying any attention to the fact-checkers? So far, McCain has seen little blowback from lying. Polls show that he’s perceived as more “honest and trustworthy” than Obama  and that the public believes his claim that Obama would raise taxes on the middle class. When MediaCurves showed the Obama-called-Palin-a-pig ad to a focus group of women, many came out thinking that Barack Obama had a gender bias. Some of these surveys might simply reflect McCain’s post-convention, post-Palin bounce—and perhaps they’ll recede as the weeks go on, especially if the media focuses on his attacks.

But it wouldn’t be surprising if McCain’s lies worked. In my bookTrue Enough: Learning To Live in a Post-Fact Society, published earlier this year, I argued that in the digital world, facts are a stock of faltering value. The phenomenon that scholars call “media fragmentation”—the disintegration of the mass media into the many niches of the Web, cable news, and talk radio—lets us consume news that we like and avoid news that we don’t, leading people to perceive reality in a way that conforms to their long-held beliefs. Not everyone agrees with me that our new infosphere will open the floodgates to fiction, but it’s clear that the McCain camp is benefiting from some of the forces I described.

In particular, McCain is feeding off long-held conservative antipathy to the mainstream news media, the same force that propelled the Swift Boat Veterans for Truth four years ago. The Swift Boat message was conceived on talk radio; in the months before they caught the attention of TV producers, the vets appeared on hundreds of local radio stations across the country to push the story that the media wasn’t telling the whole truth about Kerry. By the time they’d raised enough money to run TV ads, the Swift Vets had built up a huge network of people ready to defend their claims. These networks managed to render fact-checking not just ineffective, but countereffective—when newspapers pointed out flaws in the Swift Vets’ claims, the Vets’ defenders would pounce, arguing that the very act of fact-checking proved that the media was in the tank for Kerry.

The same dynamic is at work in the Palin rollout: “The more the New York Times and the Washington Post go after Sarah Palin, the better off she is, because there’s a bigger truth out there and the bigger truths are she’s new, she’s popular in Alaska, and she is an insurgent,” Republican strategist John Feehery told the Washington Post. “As long as those are out there, these little facts don’t really matter.”

Obama has inherent, obvious disadvantages in pushing a message in which “little facts don’t really matter.” For one thing, he’s boxed in by his oft-repeated search for a different kind of politics. But given the tenor of the campaign, Obama’s audience might be happy to see him take the low road. In the past, Democratic voters have been willing to accept lies. Researchers at the Annenberg Public Policy Center found that in 2004, the Kerry campaign managed to convince Americans that 3 million jobs had been lost during George W. Bush’s first term (at the time of the election, it was less than 2 million) and that Bush “favored sending American jobs overseas.” (He didn’t.) Kerry and others on the left repeated these claims often, and in time they took root.

The misstatements of 2004 suggest a category of lies that Obama could get away with—ones that the public is already primed to believe about McCain. McCain’s signature policy goal is cutting out earmarks. But as the Washington Monthly’s Steve Benen points out, in promising to veto all earmarks, McCain has inadvertently called for cutting some popular programs—including all U.S. assistance to Israel, which is technically provided through a kind of earmark. Of course McCain doesn’t really want to stop giving aid to Israel; an ad that suggested McCain’s cost-cutting zeal would lead to abandoning Israel would be as dishonest as McCain’s sex-ed ad. But it might also be effective, reinforcing the idea that McCain wants to cut too much.

Or what about that 100-years war? Picture an Obama ad showing McCain saying that the war in Iraq will last 100—or even 1,000!—years. The ad patches in footage of McCain singing “bomb Iran” and describing all the devastating effects of war. Actually, that ad exists—a comedy group posted it on YouTube in February. Nearly 2 million people have watched it. It’s hilarious, effective, and a complete lie. Obama’s advisers should be pushing him to approve that message.