Every election has winners and losers. But no matter who wins on November 6, the big loser of this election will be the Truth.
While the presidential candidates repeatedly say that leveling with voters will be the key to victory, you would never know it from the way they have been campaigning. Nowhere has this been more evident than on the debate stages in Denver and Danville, Ky.
When Governor Romney cited a widely discredited McKinsey study, which claimed that 30% of American businesses are anticipating dropping people from health insurance coverage as a result of the Affordable Care Act, the truth began to fade. And when President Obama chose not to challenge the claim, after asserting a few fictions of his own, the truth flat-lined.
There have been numerous moments in both debates thus far where the candidates have offered completely contradictory facts about their own plans.
President Obama said, “Governor Romney’s central economic plan calls for a $5 trillion tax cut — on top of the extension of the Bush tax cuts — that’s another trillion dollars.” Governor Romney responded, “I don’t have a $5 trillion tax cut.”
Obama said that the Republican budget Romney has talked about would cut the education budget by “up to 20%.” Governor Romney responded, “I don’t have any plan to cut education funding – and grants that go to people going to college.”
Here was an illuminating exchange from the vice presidential debate:
PAUL RYAN: Their own actuary from the administration came to Congress and said one out of six hospitals and nursing homes are going to go out of business as a result of this.
JOE BIDEN: That’s not what they said.
RYAN: 7.4 million seniors are projected to lose their current Medicare Advantage coverage they have. That’s a $3,200 benefit cut.
BIDEN: That didn’t happen.
Someone’s got to be wrong here, right? If you are not a major, inside-the-beltway policy wonk, how can you tell who’s telling the truth?
When candidates for high office are permitted to pull “numbers,” and “studies,” and “facts” out of the thin Denver (or Danville) air with millions of people watching and nothing holding them accountable to reality, everyone loses.
Of course, fuzzy data and brazen falsehoods have always been endemic in American politics. Spinning is just a part of campaigning – and it always will be. But in 2012 the myths and distortions have spiraled out of control. And they are reflected in public opinion. Thirty-nine percent of Americans believe that the health reform law created “a government panel to make decisions about end of life care for people on Medicare,” according to a Kaiser Family Foundation study conducted last month. It does not.
A recent Pew poll found that 17% of American registered voters still believe that President Obama is a Muslim. He is not.
There are voters who don’t even the trust Bureau of Labor Statistics’ unemployment rate anymore.
Many people believe this is the inevitable result of the Internet. The sheer volume of policy statistics being transmitted at the speed of light make it nearly impossible for average voters to assess the validity of what they see and hear. Others call it the consequence of hyper-partisanship in Washington. Democrats have their think tanks, crunching blue numbers, while Republicans have their own policy shops spewing out red numbers.
To be sure, we’ve seen a rise in the fact checking movement in recent years, with the creation of organizations like Annenberg’s Factcheck.org and the Tampa Bay Times’ Politifact.com. But these truth squads are small operations that come out with “pants on fire” designations days after fabrication, which is too late in a world with a media cycle closer to 24-minutes than 24 hours.
There is no way to eliminate false claims and fabricated statistics, but there is at least one way we inject some truth back into electoral discourse. Ironically, hope lies in the very forum that caused the biggest problem this year: the presidential debate.
The debates are unique. There are just two candidates battling it out as nearly 70 million Americans watch. This unique setting presents the best opportunity to set the record straight. But in order to have any effect, designations of truth or falsehood made during the debate would have to be made in near real-time, not the next day.
To accomplish this, we propose that the Commission on Presidential Debates appoint a nonpartisan committee that could fact-check the debates and post the results in real-time during the network broadcasts on a crawl at the bottom of the screen.
The Commission would require the campaigns to submit their specific policy proposals for “Truth Scoring” two weeks before the debate focused on their topic—domestic affairs, foreign affairs—in order to help facilitate the fact-checking. If the candidate misrepresented their position, the Commission would “call them on it” during the debate for all 70 million Americans to see. The Commission could broadcast the debates on a 30-second delay to allow a graphic to appear on the screen notifying viewers when the candidates strayed from the truth.
Is this far-fetched? Another wild-eyed idea of ivory tower academics? The campaigns are already doing it, albeit from a partisan viewpoint. The campaigns already run rapid responses on Twitter demonstrating that near real-time fact-checking is indeed realistic.
If the commission had a chance to go over the candidates’ proposals ahead of time, and anticipate where they might try to bend the facts, a team of tech-savvy staffers would be able to rein the candidates in and make them look silly when they skirt the truth.
No doubt presidential campaigns would have to be dragged kicking and screaming to this new format. Yet, nearly 70 million people watched the first presidential debate on TV. That’s up near Super Bowl territory. There is no other political event in existence that draws that many eyeballs to the same place at the same time. As long as people keep watching, no presidential campaign could pass up 90 minutes of free, quality airtime with a large chunk of American households. If one of the candidates were to back out, the attack ad writes itself. “Candidate X can’t handle the truth!”
“Facts,” as John Adams once said, “are stubborn things,” and despite what politicians may want to believe, they still matter.
Promoting intellectual honesty and accountability in political discourse is not an impossible task. We just have to be more creative than the falsifiers. The presidential debates offer a forum in which the candidates have to show up, all America is watching, and we can call them on their lies. Let’s save the truth before it is too late.