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October 7, 2004

the importance of being honest

Popular opinion holds that politicians are liars--generally. In my view, however, the Bush administration is different. They have repeatedly made extremely important claims that were false. In some cases, such as when they claimed that Iraq possessed weapons of mass destruction, I suspect that they were wrong at first, rather than mendacious. However, they failed to investigate and then correct the record, and this showed a damaging and blatant disrespect for truth.

So how is an opponent to respond? One answer is: fight fire with fire. It is crucial to defeat a reckeless and feckless incumbent, so you have to be extremely critical. Voters aren't well-informed or sophisticated, so you must make your accusations simple and dramatic. People don't believe politicians; they discount everything they hear by 50%; so you'd better inflate your claims.

I don't know whether anyone really believes this answer, but I certainly disagree with it. I think a challenger in 2004 stands to gain enormously by developing a reputation for scrupulous honesty. The Bush administration has made so many grievous mistakes and misjudgments that there are plenty of accurate charges that one can launch. However, if you make an issue out of the incumbents' dishonesty, then you must look like Abe Lincoln yourself, or else the "honesty issue" will become muddy. Even in our cynical age, some national politicians (Tsongas, McCain) have built reputations for truth-telling. In addition to being smart politics, there would be great civic advantages to a strategy of honesty that began to restore public trust in politics and government.

So why do Kerry-Edwards make factually dubious claims? Why do they say that we're spending $200 billion on Iraq? Using a figure of $157 billion would have exactly the same political impact, and it would have the advantage of being true. Why did Senator Kerry claim that "The President hasn't put one nickel ... into the effort to fix some of our tunnels and bridges and most exposed subway systems"? Funding for this category of work has been terribly inadequate, but quite far above one nickel. ($115 million seems to be a better estimate.) Why do they claim that Vice President Cheney has benefited financially from contracts with Halliburton made during the Bush Administration? There are countless other charges to be made against Cheney and Halliburton that happen to be true. Finally (to consider a more subtle issue), why do they say repeatedly that casualties are increasing by the month in Iraq? This is literally true but misleading, since casualties were higher several months ago. It would work just as well to cite the total number of US dead and wounded.

I do not imagine that millions of people were visiting sites like www.factcheck.org until Dick Cheney tried to send them there. But if such neutral referees consistently gave a candidate good marks for honesty and accuracy, I think that impression would gradually get across in the mass media.

In short, I wish that Kerry-Edwards had hired professional fact-checkers and let them edit every speech, ad, and set of talking-points. By now, the Democrats would be perceived as considerably more honest than the incumbents, and that would count in November.

Update: The Decembrist complains about the equal treatment that Cheney and Edwards have received in the press, and asks: "Why couldn't the headline be, 'Cheney Tells Dozens of Whoppers'? Because that is the story, and the glib journalistic cliché of 'both sides stretch the truth' merely obscures the actual story." I think the most accurate overall assessment would be: "Bush and Cheney tell massive and consequential lies, while Kerry and Edwards (who are not yet responsible for defending an incumbent administration) frequently resort to exaggerations and half-truths." If this is the reality, then it's no surprise that the actual headlines read "both sides stretch the truth." Kerry and Edwards could have avoided those headlines (and still have won their debates) if only they had been scrupulous.

Posted by peterlevine at 12:00 PM | Comments (1) | TrackBack

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