An incumbent president is facing a tough challenge from a Massachusetts politician who is even richer than he is, just as in 2004. For most of the year, pollsters have found that less than half the country approves of the incumbent’s job performance, also as in 2004. The challenger is again said to have trouble connecting with voters. Add another parallel to the list: Mark Halperin is convinced that the Republican candidate is stretching the truth more than the Democrat.
In October 2004, the high-profile journalist, who then worked for ABC, cited three other journalistic eminences to make the point that “the current Bush attacks on Kerry involve distortions and taking things out of context in a way that goes beyond what Kerry has done. Kerry distorts, takes out of context, and [makes] mistakes all the time, but these are not central to his efforts to win. We have a responsibility to hold both sides accountable to the public interest, but that doesn’t mean we reflexively and artificially hold both sides ‘equally’ accountable when the facts don’t warrant that.”
This August, Halperin, now working at Time, made much the same point on MSNBC. The names of the candidates had changed, but not the relatively dishonest political party: “At this point I think the Romney campaign is besting them in making these distortions and untruths a bigger part of their message.” His remarks made less of a splash this time around, but in both cases he was speaking for many of his peers in that large portion of the press that professes no explicit ideological commitments — and for even more of his peers in the most influential portions of that portion.
Halperin may have gotten less attention this time because so many reporters were already acting on his conclusion — now aided by the “fact-checking” institutions that have proliferated in the media between the two election years. Twice this year, the fact-checkers have turned up the volume against a politician for lying too much. The first target was Paul Ryan in his convention speech, the second Mitt Romney in his first debate with Obama. In the second case, the media’s take coincided, to say no more, with that of the Democrats. Romney having pretty clearly bested Obama, the Democrats were left with little to say other than that the Republican had done it by lying.
The conceit of the fact-checkers is that their claims are objectively true: A politician has said X, the truth is Y, and the size of the difference is the magnitude of the lie. Every stage of the fact-checking process, however, involves the exercise of judgment. The fact-checker must decide which claims to scrutinize and how harshly a misstatement should be treated. The media’s fact-checkers have also taken it upon themselves to interpret the intended impression a factually true statement is meant to leave, so as to grade the accuracy of that impression. Where judgment is necessary, bias is possible — and all the more likely when the fact-checker believes he is merely stating the objective truth, and when most of his colleagues perceive the truth the same way he does.
In his speech, Ryan noted that President Obama had created a commission to reduce the deficit and then ignored its recommendations, whereas he had developed his own deficit-reduction plan. All of this was true. Ryan didn’t note that he had voted against the commission’s recommendations, however, and the fact-checkers took him to be falsely insinuating that he supported them. On another interpretation, Ryan was suggesting that Obama, having set up the commission, had an obligation either to accept its proposals or to outline, as Ryan had done, his own alternative. This interpretation did not occur to the fact-checkers.
The journalistic conventional wisdom behind Halperin’s conclusion is built on similarly flawed analyses. Romney has, of course, stretched the truth on many occasions. He frequently claims that 23 million Americans are “out of work,” including in his tally 8 million people who have part-time jobs but would prefer full-time ones. He says that half of college graduates cannot find jobs, another exaggeration. His campaign claimed that Obama had said, “If we keep talking about the economy, we’re going to lose,” when in truth Obama had attributed that view to John McCain’s team in 2008.
The Romney statements that have attracted the most scrutiny recently, on the other hand, are true. Paul Krugman was among many liberals who accused Romney of lying when he said, during the debate, that people who have difficulty getting insurance because of preexisting conditions would be “covered under my plan.” Romney’s plan is to make insurance more affordable and portable so that fewer people find themselves sick and needing to get insurance. He would strengthen regulations that predate Obamacare, so that people with preexisting conditions can move from employer coverage to individually owned insurance policies. The small number of people who would still lack affordable insurance once these policies are in place would receive special subsidies to get coverage.
Some of Romney’s critics seem not to understand Romney’s plan in full. Others do not think it would work well, or as well as Obamacare. They ought to be willing to argue the point without accusing Romney of lying or being misleading. Romney would deal with the problem, just not in the way liberals prefer.
At the debate, Romney also said that Obamacare’s Independent Payment Advisory Board would ration health care for Medicare recipients. Again, he has been accused of making things up, since IPAB has no statutory authority to ration care. Obama said that all the board would do is enforce best practices. It’s a distinction without a difference. The board can cut off funding for practices it does not deem “best.” Maybe that is a good idea, but it is also one that can reasonably be described as rationing.
The candidates mixed it up over Medicare funding, too, with Romney claiming that Obama had cut $716 billion from the program and the president denying it. The fact-checkers have mostly been with Obama, on the grounds that reductions in the growth of the program aren’t cuts and that Obama’s cuts would come from medical providers and not beneficiaries. The press does not define spending cuts this way in any other context. Nor is there any reason Romney must join Obama in purporting to believe that cuts to providers will have no effect on beneficiaries.
The fact-checkers have generally, to their credit, broken ranks with liberals in another dispute: whether it is true, as Obama says, that Romney is planning to cut taxes by $5 trillion and dissembling about it. Obama reaches this conclusion by ignoring the tax breaks Romney says he would pare back so that average tax rates stay roughly where they are now. Romney has not specified which breaks he would reduce, and it’s perfectly fair to press him on that question. Looking at only one side of the ledger, though, does not seem reasonable. Obama would presumably protest if Romney ignored his Medicare cuts when calculating how much Obamacare raised spending.