Editore"s Note
Tilting at Windmills

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October 11, 2004
By: Kevin Drum

BUSH LIES MORE THAN KERRY....FILM AT 11....Here's a poser: do both candidates rely on deceit and distortion equally? Debate fact checking articles don't usually take sides on this question, but ABC News Political Director Mark Halperin does, telling his reporters in an internal memo last week that "the current Bush attacks on Kerry involve distortions and taking things out of context in a way that goes beyond what Kerry has done."

Halperin's message to his troops was plain: report what's really happening. If one side lies more than the other, feel free to report that instead of creating a fake balance that doesn't exist.

But is Halperin right? I decided to score last Friday's debate and find out. Who distorted more? And how big were the distortions?

Here's what I did. I read five fact checking articles (New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, CNN, and Factcheck.org) and copied down each error they reported. Then I scored each one on three different measures:

  • Technical inaccuracy. Was the statement factually inaccurate? Was a number incorrect or a position misstated? And was it wrong by a little bit or by a lot?

    This was scored from 0-3.

  • Intent to Deceive. Regardless of technical accuracy, was there an intent to mislead? Was the statement just an exaggeration of something that's basically true, or was it flatly designed to project the opposite of the truth? Could the same point even have been made at all if it were stated correctly?

    This was scored from 0-3.

  • Importance. Some subjects are more important than others. Wetlands protection is just not a major campaign issue, while the conduct of the war in Iraq is.

    This was scored from 1-3.

To get the final score, I added the first two scores together and then multiplied by importance. The lowest possible score is 1, the highest possible score is 18. (UPDATE: Anything with a score of 0 is a true statement i.e., it was neither technically inaccurate nor meant to deceive. That's why the minimum score is 1. If something scores a 0, it's not on this list.)

Now, before anyone goes rushing off to leave a comment about this, let me say that I know this formula is sort of dumb and simpleminded and I know there's no way to truly quantify deception. But this is a way to force yourself to give some thought to how serious each individual deception was, and anyway, if you can't do something dumb and simpleminded in a blog, where can you do it?

The details are all below the fold, but here are the results:

  • Bush: 18 lies, total score of 118.

  • Kerry: 10 lies, total score of 51.

Perhaps more important than the total score, though, is the number of serious lies. Bush had 7 serious lies (those with a score of 9 or above) while Kerry had none.

In other words, Bush rather clearly lied more than Kerry and lied more seriously than Kerry. I did my best to apply the same rigor to both candidates, but even with a different formula and different scoring, it's hard to see how Bush wouldn't come out as seriously more deceptive than Kerry. As Halperin said, deception seems to be central to George Bush's campaign while it's basically peripheral to John Kerry's.

Click the link below for all the details.

George Bush's Inaccuracies:


Statement

Technical
Inaccuracy

Intent to
Deceive


Importance


Score


"He said he thought Saddam Hussein was a grave threat, and now he said it was a mistake to remove Saddam Hussein from power."

1
Kerry has never specifically said it was mistake to depose Saddam Hussein.

0
This is mainly a rhetorical exaggeration. Kerry has said it was a mistake to fight the war how and when it was fought, which amounts to much the same thing.

3
Whether or not to invade Iraq is a key issue in the campaign.

3


"I remember sitting in the White House looking at those generals, saying, 'Do you have what you need in this war? Do you have what it takes?'.... And they looked me in the eye and said, "Yes, sir, Mr. President.'"

2
Eric Shinseki and several other generals expressed doubts about troop levels

2
This kind of decision is never without dissenters, but it's still a pretty clear intent to suggest the military was 100% on board with Rumsfeld's plan to invade with a small number of troops.

3
This is a core issue in the conduct of the war.

12


About blocking the reimportation of Canadian drugs: "I haven't yet. Just want to make sure they're safe. When a drug comes in from Canada, I want to make sure it cures you and doesn't kill you."

2
Bush has blocked attempts by Congress to allow drug reimportation. But, yes, he might change his mind later.

2
He's clearly trying to imply that he's not opposed to drug reimportation, despite his consistent past opposition to it.

2
This is a moderately important issue in the campaign.

8


"The National Journal named Senator Kennedy [i.e., Kerry] the most liberal senator of all."

0
Technically, this is true for the year 2003.

1
His lifetime rating ranks him the 11th most liberal senator, and even the editor of National Journal says the "most liberal senator" label is wrong. However, it's an exaggeration, not an outright lie. Kerry is a liberal senator, after all.

3
Liberal vs. conservative is about as fundamental as it gets.

3


"He says that medical liability costs only cause a 1 percent increase. That shows a lack of understanding. Doctors practice defensive medicine because of all the frivolous lawsuits that cost our government $28 billion a year."

1
This is obviously a contentious issue, but most recent research backs up Kerry's 1% figure.

0
The research in this area is too ambiguous to give this a score.

2
It's a moderately important campaign issue.

2


"He said he's going to have a novel health care plan. You know what it is? The federal government is going to run it."

3
This is a serious deception. Kerry's plan relies primarily on private insurers and is not nationalized healthcare.

3
The intent here is every bit as bad as the technical inaccuracy.

2
This is a fairly important campaign issue.

12


"We have a deficit because this country went into a recession....Secondly, we're at war...."

2
Recession and war are partially responsible for large deficits, but so are tax cuts and large nondefense spending increases.

3
The question was about spending and taxes, and Bush is trying to deny they have anything to do with the deficit. This is a serious effort to mislead.

2
Taxes and spending are major issues.

10


"He voted 98 times to raise taxes. I mean, these aren't make-up figures."

2
This is based on lots of double counting, as well as bills that didn't raise taxes at all.

1
It's an exaggeration, but Kerry has voted to raise taxes in the past.

2
Taxes are an important campaign issue.

6


"I've got a plan to increase the wetlands by 3 million."

0
Maybe he does have a plan....

2
There's a serious intent to deceive, though. In the past three years the Bush administration has substantially relaxed wetlands protection.

1
Wetlands are not a major campaign issue.

2


"He says he's only going to tax the rich. Do you realize, 900,000 small businesses will be taxed under his plan...."

3
Bush is counting anyone who receives any business income at all as a "small business."

2
Bush is trying to say that Kerry's plan will substantially hit ordinary middle class taxpayers, and this just isn't true.

2
Taxes are an important campaign issue.

10


"I own a timber company?"

1
Bush does in fact have part ownership of a timber company.

0
It was mostly a joke.

1
Nobody cares very much about either Bush's timber holdings or the broader issue of whether he personally receives any business income.

1


"We increased that child credit by $1,000, reduced the marriage penalty, created a 10 percent tax bracket for the lower-income Americans. That's right at the middle class. He voted against it."

2
Kerry didn't vote against this last month. He missed the vote. He did vote against the entire 2001 tax bill, but not because of those provisions, which he's clearly stated he's in favor of.

3
The intent is clearly to suggest that Kerry is opposed to these particular tax cuts, despite his consistent and longstanding statements to the contrary.

2
Taxes are a major campaign issue.

10


"We've already caught 75 percent of [Osama bin Laden's] people."

2
The real figure is closer to two-thirds, and applies only to al-Qaeda leaders, not the entire organization, which has grown substantially since 9/11. What's more, of al-Qaeda's top leaders, virtually none have been captured.

1
There's certainly an intent on Bush's part to exaggerate his success at rolling up al-Qaeda, but the real figures are too ambiguous to say he's being flatly deceptive here.

3
Terrorism and al-Qaeda are obviously prime issues in the campaign.

9


"He keeps talking about, 'Let the inspectors do their job.' It's naive and dangerous to say that. That's what the Duelfer report showed."

1
Actually, the Duelfer report was ambiguous. It said that Saddam had no WMD and a declining ability to produce it, but also that he had the desire to restart WMD programs if sanctions had been lifted.

1
This is mostly rhetorical exaggeration, and both candidates did it.

3
Saddam's WMD and the Iraq war in general are central to this election.

6


"Another is to pass -- to get our seniors to sign up to these drug discount cards, and they're working."

1
Actually, there are a lot of problems with the drug discount cards.

1
Overall, this is fairly harmless and normal political puffery.

1
It's not really a major campaign issue

2


"We increased that child credit by $1,000...."

1
He increased the child credit to $1,000. The size of the increase was $500.

0
It was probably just a miscue.

1
Not a huge issue.

1


"Non-homeland, non-defense discretionary spending was raising at 15 percent a year when I got into office. And today it's less than 1 percent, because we're working together to try to bring this deficit under control."

2
This is true only by cherry-picking two specific years out of the past 12.

3
This was a very serious effort to deceive people into thinking he's been reducing spending. By nearly every possible measure, Bush has increased spending faster than any president for the past 30 years.

3
Taxes and spending are major campaign issues.

15


"My opponent said that America must pass a global test before we used force to protect ourselves."

1
Kerry did use the phrase "global test," although Bush is misconstruing what he meant.

1
Bush is clearly trying to twist what Kerry said in the first debate ("No president...has ever ceded, and nor would I, the right to preempt in any way necessary to protect the United States of America"). On the other hand, Kerry has made clear that he thinks consultation with allies before we use force is important.

3
The use of force is a key issue in the campaign.

6

Total

118

John Kerry's Inaccuracies:


Statement

Technical
Inaccuracy

Intent to
Deceive


Importance


Score


"No Child Left Behind Act, I voted for it. I support it. I support the goals. But the president has underfunded it by $28 billion."

1
Funding for NCLB has been less than the maximum originally authorized, but it's a matter of opinion whether this constitutes "underfunding."

2
Kerry is trying to give the impression that Bush has slighted education funding, but that's hard to defend. Federal education funding has increased substantially over the past three years.

2
Education funding is a moderately important campaign issue.

6


"The president has presided over an economy where we've lost 1.6 million jobs. The first president in 72 years to lose jobs."

1
Kerry is referring private sector jobs but didn't say so. The actual total number is under a million.

1
This is only a modest exaggeration. Kerry's main point, that total employment has decreased, is correct.

3
Employment and the economy are key election issues.

6


"And if we'd used smart diplomacy, we could have saved $200 billion and an invasion of Iraq."

1
The cost of the war so far is actually $120 billion. Kerry's number is a projection.

0
The war will eventually cost far more than $200 billion. Kerry isn't really trying to mislead anyone here.

2
The precise cost of the war is a minor issue, but it's part of a big issue.

2


"General Shinseki, the Army chief of staff, told him he was going to need several hundred thousand. And guess what? They retired General Shinseki for telling him that."

2
Shinseki wasn't "retired," he filled out his full term as Army Chief of Staff.

0
Donald Rumsfeld clearly tried to get Shinseki to retire, and certainly sidelined him for over a year. Part of the reason for this was indeed Shinseki's troop estimates for the Iraq war.

3
The conduct of the war is a key issue.

6


"The president gave the top 1 percent of income-earners in America, got $89 billion last year, more than the 80 percent of people who earn $100,000 or less all put together."

1
I originally scored this higher, but it appears that Kerry's numbers are correct according to the CBO. Details here. Kerry's only real error is suggesting that "bottom 80%" is equal to "people who earn less than $100,000," and this is a fairly trivial mistake.

0
Kerry got one number slightly wrong, but there's nothing seriously misleading here.

3
Tax policy is a key campaign issue.

3


"Every part of my program I've shown how I'm going to pay for it."

1
It's not clear if Kerry's numbers really add up.

1
This is fairly ordinary political puffery.

2
Taxes and the deficit are important campaign issues.

4


Referring to the PATRIOT Act: "They've got sneak-and-peek searches that are allowed."

2
Sneak and peek searches long predate the PATRIOT Act.

1
The PATRIOT Act does make them easier to perform. This is an exaggeration, but not entirely wrong.

2
The PATRIOT act and fighting terrorism in general are important issues.

6


"He put $139 billion of windfall profit into the pockets of the drug companies right out of your pockets."

1
This is based on a single study and has been disputed.

1
The precise number may be hard to pin down, but the Medicare bill was definitely friendly to pharmaceutical companies.

2
Medicare is a moderately important topic.

4


"The goal of the sanctions was not to remove Saddam Hussein, it was to remove the weapons of mass destruction. And, Mr. President, just yesterday the Duelfer report told you and the whole world they worked."

1
Actually, the Duelfer report was ambiguous. It said that Saddam had no WMD and a declining ability to produce it, but also that he had the desire to restart WMD programs if sanctions had been lifted.

1
This is mostly rhetorical exaggeration, and both candidates did it.

3
Saddam's WMD and the Iraq war in general are central to this election.

6


"I have a plan to provide health care to all Americans."

2
No he doesn't.

2
Kerry does have a plan to provide coverage to a lot more Americans, but not to all. This is a fairly substantial exaggeration.

2
Healthcare is a major issue.

8

Total

51


Kevin Drum 6:30 PM Permalink | Trackbacks

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