The latest craze in political reporting is fact-checking and truth-testing. Articles are written by major news outlets or by organizations dedicated ostensibly to truth in politics. The most prominent among these is PolitiFact, which was anointed into sacrosanct status by being granted the Pulitzer Prize. Now, at year's end, PolitiFact has announced its list of ten finalists for Lie of the Year.
These include four statements by Mitt Romney, one by Rush Limbaugh, three by Barack Obama, one from the Democratic National Convention, and one from a pro-Obama SuperPAC. In terms of fairness and evenhandedness, that lineup seems unassailable with five Republican remarks and five Democrat. The problem is that some of the judgments being applied here are dead wrong, others verging on silly. What they all have in common is an appalling lack of understanding of the true character of political debate.
Let me run through the quotes they have identified, the reasons they give for their rating, and my commentary on their analysis":
"Over the last four years, the deficit has gone up, but 90 percent of that is as a consequence of President George W. Bush's policies and the recession." -- Barack Obama on 60 Minutes, Sept. 23, 2012
PolitiFact rating: FALSE. Reason: Many of the policies CBO attributes to the rise in the deficit are Bush policies that Obama supports, such as the middle-class tax cut and the Medicare prescription drug benefit. (They mention that the Washington Post gave this Four Pinocchios, its highest rating for whoppers.)
I don't find this to be a false statement. All he is saying is that the deficit was not run up by a set of new policies he put into motion when he entered office, that what was in place already caused the lion's share of the deficit. I think that is a fair point and the language he used was not tricky or misleading. Now it is true that he has not lost any sleep over the deficit or shown any interest in taming it, but other than the spending in the big stimulus bill, this is not a deficit created by new Obama policies.
"Barack Obama began his presidency with an apology tour." -- Mitt Romney at the Republican National Convention, August 30, 2012.
PolitiFact Rating: PANTS ON FIRE! Reason: Although Obama said in France the U.S. "has shown arrogance and been dismissive, even derisive," he modified that by saying Europe has been guilty of a "casual" and "insidious" anti-Americanism. In the United Nations he said "America has acted unilaterally, without regard for the interests of others." But he modulated that by adding this "has fed an almost reflexive anti-Americanism, which too often served as an excuse for collective inaction. In Egypt, he acknowledge that the United States had interfered in Iran in the 1950s, but he countered with criticism of Iran's current behavior.
I hear them panting but I don't see the fire. This is not even false; it is simply an opinion. Romney believes that an American President should not travel around the world talking about mistakes made by previous administrations. And if that is not technically an apology, it might well be something worse, a condemnation of your own nation while visiting other nations.
One can offer a defense of Obama and argue that it is diplomatic to show some deference abroad, even to acknowledge some shortcomings in the process. But it is certainly fair for an opponent to call this an apology tour. It is not even hyperbole, much less falsehood.
(Notice also that nobody makes the point I made in my column at the time, that it is not even proven by any legitimate evidence that we interfered in Iran. It is merely an old college professor accusation, hotly denied by the people in Iran who were actually in charge.)
"Mitt Romney called the Arizona immigration law a model for the nation." -- Barack Obama, Second Presidential Debate, Oct. 16, 2012
PolitiFact rating: FALSE. Reason: The law Romney called a model for the nation was a 2007 law called the Legal Arizona Workers Act which demanded employers use E-Verify to check a new employee's legal work status. The more controversial Arizona law Obama is referring to is a 2010 immigration enforcement law allowing state police to check the immigration status of someone who is a suspect in another crime.
Obama falsely gave the impression Romney had lauded that bill as a model. In fact, Romney had defended the right of Arizona to pass that bill but never endorsed its contents in any way.
Well, it is a dirty trick that should be beneath a President. But it is not false in a substantive way. The kind of people Obama was directing that appeal to were those who dislike or fear the newer Arizona law. The fact that Romney defends it is probably enough to alarm those folks, and all Obama did was stoke the flames a bit. Obama's main point remained valid; namely, if you find the Arizona law offensive, Romney's not your guy. He just conveyed that truth in a gratuitously nasty way.
"President Obama was saying success is the result of government, not hard-working people, when he said, 'If you've got a business, you didn't build that. Somebody else made that happen.'" -- Mitt Romney, on a web video, July 25, 2012
PolitiFact rating: FALSE. Reason: In context, Obama went on to clarify that when we succeed, we succeed because of our personal initiative, but also because we do things together. We rise or fall together as one nation and as one people.
There is no question some parts of Obama's presentation were innocuous and pointed out an obvious truism, that individuals cannot thrive in anarchy. At the same time, he did start off by sneering at people who think they succeeded because they were smarter and worked harder than the other guy. "I'm always struck by people who think, well, it must be because I was so smart."
If he would have finished that by saying God helped the winners, that would be fairly innocuous. But when he finished by saying government made it possible, he seemed to be subscribing to a view that success is more attributable to the government than to that guy being "so smart." This makes the popular critique (which Romney echoed) a fair argument, a legitimate debating point. It certainly is not some kind of false canard manufactured out of thin air that needs to be given the bum's rush out of the public square of political dialogue.
Some of the other lies they cite fall into the category of truly scurrilous distortion. In that respect, fact-checking could play a worthy role. But by clucking their tongues over every hyperbolic or overly dramatic presentation (such as their earlier conniption fit over Sarah Palin calling a committee determining what treatments will be paid for a "death panel"), they are not bringing greater honesty to politics, merely greater banality and timidity.