I can’t wait for this election season to be over. The presidential contest has dragged on for almost two years. If you ask voters whether all of the interviews, debates and media coverage of the candidates have been helpful, I doubt that many would say yes. Almost every day, there is a new poll that shows Governor Romney as leading in key states; the next day, it’s President Obama in the lead. While pollsters correctly note that these changes can be from differences in methodologies, I suspect that some voters simply can’t decide what to believe about either candidate.
Consider this example. During the second of the three presidential debates, President Obama and Governor Romney sparred over whether employers should be required to include contraception in their insurance coverage for employees:
President Obama: In my health care bill, I said insurance companies need to provide contraceptive coverage to everybody who is insured. Because this is not just a — a health issue, it’s an economic issue for women. It makes a difference. This is money out of that family’s pocket. Gov. Romney not only opposed it, he suggested that in fact employers should be able to make the decision as to whether or not a woman gets contraception through her insurance coverage.”
Governor Romney: “I’d just note that I don’t believe that bureaucrats in Washington should tell someone whether they can use contraceptives or not. And I don’t believe employers should tell someone whether they could have contraceptive care or not. Every woman in America should have access to contraceptives. And the president’s statement of my policy is completely and totally wrong.”
But, as governor of Massachusetts, Romney vetoed legislation requiring emergency rooms to provide female rape victims with progestin emergency contraceptive pills, claiming that these pills induce abortions. As the federal Office of Women’s Health has noted, “If you are already pregnant, emergency contraception will not work.”
After running on a platform that opposed abortion, the governor has approved an ad that recently targeted women voters. The ad features a woman with children who says she looked online for information about his position on abortion and found that “doesn’t oppose contraception at all” and “thinks abortion should be an option in cases of rape, incest, or to save a mother’s life.” And two months ago in an interview with conservative talk show host Hugh Hewitt, Romney added “health” of the mother as an exception.
But lest you think that only Romney obfuscates his position on issues, here are some analyses by the University of Pennsylvania’s Annenberg Public Policy Center’s FactCheck.org about both candidates’ assertions after the second presidential debate:
- Obama challenged Romney to “get the transcript” when Romney questioned the president’s claim to have spoken of an “act of terror” the day after the slaying of four Americans in Libya. The president indeed referred to “acts of terror” that day, but then refrained from labeling it a terrorist attack.
- Obama claimed Romney once called Arizona’s “papers, please” immigration law a “model” for the nation. He didn’t. Romney said that of an earlier Arizona law requiring employers to check the immigration status of employees.
- Obama falsely claimed Romney once referred to wind-power jobs as “imaginary.” Not true. Romney actually spoke of “an imaginary world” where “windmills and solar panels could power the economy.”
- Romney claimed 580,000 women have lost jobs under Obama. The true figure is closer to 93,000.
- Romney claimed the automakers’ bankruptcy that Obama implemented was “precisely what I recommend.” Romney did favor a bankruptcy followed by federal loan guarantees, but not the direct federal aid that Obama insists was essential.
- Romney said he would keep Pell Grants for low-income college students “growing.” That’s a change. Both Romney and his running mate, Ryan, have previously said they’d limit eligibility.
In this campaign season of distorted and made-up “facts”, the nuances can be hard for the average consumer to discern. But videotapes and fact checkers are the new tools for holding candidates accountable for what they say. For example, the Pulitzer Prize-winning site PolitiFact.com pointed out that when Romney says that he would support the ACA feature that prevents insurers “discrimination against individuals with pre-existing conditions”, he adds the qualifier, “who maintain continuous coverage.” This will permit insurers to deny coverage for pre-existing conditions for people who have lost their insurance for a period of time.
Yet another example from this fact-checking web site is about how many people will become uninsured if Obamacare is continued or repealed. Romney said that 20 million people will lose their insurance under Obamacare: totally wrong. Obama says that 50 million people will lose coverage if Obamacare is repealed: mostly wrong. Politifact estimates that “only about 30 million to 32.9 million people would lose coverage by 2022 if Obamacare was simply repealed. An additional 18 million people might lose coverage if Romney achieves his plan of converting Medicaid to a block grant, according to some studies.”
Masters of the rhetorical nuance have been ramping up their game since Frank Lutz developed his manifesto, the New American Lexicon, telling a Republican Congress what to say and what not to say to gain public support of their initiatives. In the 1990s, his manifesto included admonishments to say “preserving Medicare” instead of “cutting Medicare,” “personalize Social Security” instead of “privatize” it. And today he is credited with shifting public discussions of “school vouchers” to “opportunity scholarships”. These subtle shifts in language can have powerful effects when they tap into the core believes and values of their target audience, the voters.
I’m sure the Democrats have their own version of Mr. Lutz. Which brings me to whether anything can be done to correct this sorry state of affairs.
The obfuscation of truth may be just what the American voter wants. We are an ideologically divided country. We watch Fox News or MSNBC, both noted for their partisan bias. We are intolerant of candidates’ misspeaking. In fact, a candidate saying, “I made a mistake” is often considered a sign of weakness. FactCheck.org notes that during the second debate, “Romney said repeatedly he won’t cut taxes for the wealthy, a switch from his position during the GOP primaries, when he said the top 1 percent would be among those to benefit.” Why doesn’t he just say that he’s changed his position? Because in an ideologically-driven world, political candidates aren’t supposed to change their positions.
I would like to think that the rise of fact checkers will help the situation. Almost every major news organization is using fact checkers, not just for their own writings, but to check what is said in debates and on the campaign trails. It holds candidates accountable for what they are saying and may pressure campaign operatives to be ready to explain their candidates’ language and positions.
But I’m not overly confident that this will do much if the electorate doesn’t demand less ideological ranting and more practical analysis and discussion of issues. New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg may be leading a movement to reclaim the center in American politics. On October 20th, major news outlets, including the New York Times, reported that he has thus far refused to endorse either presidential candidate and is starting his own political action committee, Independence PAC, to endorse candidates who take positions on practical rather than ideological grounds. “While he had some praise for Mr. Obama and Mr. Romney, his central argument was that they were too hemmed in by partisan obligations and special-interest intimidation to tackle problems head on. ‘If you listen to what they say, they never get explicit,’ he said.
The videotapes may be enabling the fact checkers to hold candidates accountable for their distortions and lies, but is the public ready for the facts and reasoned arguments? After all, it is politics.
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