The First Amendment is the most fundamental and beautiful pillar of our democracy. I love it more than corned beef. I love it more than "Breaking Bad." I love it more than Nexium.
And every two years I hate it. I hate it more than sloe gin. I hate it more than "The Bachelorette." I hate it more than the Yankees. Because of the near absolute freedom of political speech, politicians are free to fill the airwaves with lies. Some are trivial, some are shocking, but they are the currency of modern politics. In advertising and in person, virtually all candidates -- regardless of party -- abuse our most sacred right in order to smear their opponents with blatant mischaracterizations of their records, their statements and their motivations.
For the past two months, residents of Virginia, Ohio, Florida, Colorado and Nevada have been inundated with countless slimy assertions by the Obama and Romney campaigns and their SuperPAC proxies. And residents of all 50 states have gotten the same treatment in 460 Congressional races, not to mention governorships and hundreds of down-ticket battles. If you spend any time on the Web sites of PolitiFact.com or FactCheck.org -- and you should -- prepare to be nauseated.
If you look at the most recent 44 claims evaluated at PolitiFact, 15 are rated as true or mostly true, 19 are judged false or mostly false. Another is so brazenly false it is given the “pants on fire” rating. The remaining 9 are deemed “half true.”
Another word for half-truth? Lie. Because what is left out of a half truth is further information or context that negate the nominal facts of the claim. For instance, without straying from the facts, you could say that the Manson Family was an energetic group of volunteers dedicated to reducing population growth.
It’s particularly easy to assemble little facts in service of a big lie by artfully cherrypicking legislative votes. In such a way, voting for an omnibus budget bill that has an amendment tacked on calling for, say, a tax credit for vineyards can be twisted into: “He voted to subsidize the alcoholic beverages industry.” If you count all the procedural votes before final passage, you can say: “He voted 8 times to subsidize the alcoholic beverages industry.”
Another trick is to pluck economic statistic out of context to mischaracterize your successes or your opponent's failures. In the current campaign, hardly a statistic that either candidate has uttered about the economy can be taken at face value. (For a good summation of what face value is, look at this neutral but enlightening analysis of key economic metrics under the Obama administration.) The way the numbers have been distorted by the candidates and their SuperPACs is simply breathtaking.
According to measurements by the fact checkers, the Mitt Romney campaign has significantly outlied the Obama campaign -- by a 5:1 ratio, according to PolitiFact’s tally. On the other hand, supporters of the president can claim the most heinous smear of the campaign: a Priorities USA ad featuring former steelworker Joe Soptic, who lays responsibility for his wife’s cancer death at the feet of Mitt Romney. Soptic speaks of losing his family health insurance when Romney’s Bain Capital shut down his steel mill.
“And a short time after that my wife became ill,” he recounts. “I don’t know how long she was sick, and I think maybe she didn’t say anything because she knew that we couldn’t afford the insurance. And then one day she became ill and I took her up to the Jackson County Hospital and admitted her for pneumonia. And that’s when they found the cancer, and by then it was stage four. It was -- there was nothing they could do for her.”
What the ad doesn’t reveal is that his late wife did have health insurance from her own job when Soptic was laid off. Or that she had health insurance on her next job. Or that her diagnosis came in 2006, five years after the plant closing. Or that in 1991, Romney was running the Salt Lake City Olympics, not running Bain Capital day to day (or, according to him, at all). Yet, Soptic’s conclusion is this:
“I do not think Mitt Romney realizes what he’s done to anyone, and furthermore, I do not think Mitt Romney is concerned.”
Ah, so he’s a remorseless murderer. President Obama has nine weeks to disavow this ad. He has declined to do so. That’s what they mean by free speech. You are free to abuse it in the most vile ways.
Whoever wins the presidency of the United States may or may not well serve the nation. He may or may not fulfill campaign promises. He may or may not succeed in reducing long-term debt and stimulating the economy. But one thing you can be certain of:
Whichever man is elected next month is a liar.