Why doesn't Barack Obama lie more often?

Who's winning, who's losing, and why.
Sept. 12 2008 4:03 PM

Lies, Damned Lies, and Barack Obama

Why isn't Obama stretching the truth more often?

Illustration by Rob Donnelly. Click image to expand.

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?

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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.

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