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.
Romney’s ads on welfare have inspired furious criticism, with Bill Clinton attacking them both in an Obama campaign ad and in his speech to the Democratic convention. The press has largely joined in the attack. At issue are the work requirements that were added to welfare in the reform of 1996. States must see to it that roughly 40 percent of welfare recipients are working, looking for work, or engaged in some similar activity for at least 30 hours a week. The Obama administration announced this summer that the secretary of health and human services could grant waivers from this requirement. It subsequently said it would do so only for states that had plans to increase the number of people who leave welfare for work by 20 percent.
Romney’s ads say that the administration has “gutted welfare reform” and that people could get benefits without making any effort. On the second point, he is right: The number of people who could get benefits without working or doing anything similar could go up. The administration’s 20 percent goal (which it can revise at any time) is meaningless, since one way to increase the exit rate from welfare is to put more people on it in the first place. The first point turns on whether asserting a power to waive work requirements amounts to gutting them: a matter of opinion, not fact.
Obama’s misstatements have gotten less scrutiny, but do not seem less numerous or important than Romney’s. Where I live, in northern Virginia, Obama has been running ad after ad saying that Romney would ban abortion even in the cases of rape and incest. Romney says he would ban abortion if he could but make exceptions for those cases. Obama is relying on a 2007 debate answer in which Romney was asked whether he would ban “all” abortions if he could. Rape and incest weren’t mentioned by the questioner or Romney.
Obama has run many ads saying, as well, that Romney would raise taxes on the middle class. Romney denies he would do any such thing. Obama’s argument is that a think tank said that his numbers can’t add up — that it’s impossible to find enough tax breaks for the rich to offset the tax-rate reductions Romney favors — and that if Romney wanted to cut those tax rates without raising the deficit, he might have to raise middle-class taxes. The think tank said Obama was distorting its report by saying that Romney would definitely raise middle-class taxes. PolitiFact, one of the fact-checking groups, amazingly rated Obama’s claim “mostly true.” FactCheck.org said it was “not true.”
The president and his aides have repeatedly said that Romney’s Medicare plan would raise out-of-pocket expenses for senior citizens by $6,400. “Half-true,” says PolitiFact. No: An earlier version of the Ryan plan, which Romney never fully endorsed, could have had this result in a worst-case scenario. The latest version of the plan, which Romney has endorsed, could not have it. Under this plan, insurers would bid on how low a premium they could charge to cover Medicare’s traditional benefits. Seniors would receive funding support equal to the second-lowest bid. So there would always be a plan that cost them no more out of pocket than today, and a plan that cost them less.
The president is also running an ad that says that he has a plan to reduce the deficit by $4 trillion in “this decade.” Actually, his plan covers twelve years, and a disproportionate share of the cuts happen in the last year — so it’s a $2.9 trillion cut, as conservative econo-blogger Keith Hennessey points out. Obama is also including, as cuts, the elimination of expenses that were never going to be undertaken. He counts the drawdown in Iraq and Afghanistan toward his total.
The story was the same in 2004. Bush and Kerry both made statements contrary to fact. Bush’s record of truthfulness looked worse than Kerry’s only if approached with liberal presuppositions. That’s exactly how much of the press corps approached it. So there’s one more parallel to the presidential race eight years ago: Once again Mark Halperin is wrong.
— Ramesh Ponnuru is senior editor of National Review.