FRONT PAGE CONTRIBUTOR
Factual Accuracy and McSame Syndrome
The Truth Laces Up Its Boots
We stand today deep into the silly season of the 2008 presidential election; most of us have our dander up, and naturally some Obama partisans like Josh Marshall and Joe Klein have floated off on clouds of rhetorical overkill in an effort to push the idea that their opponent is somehow running an unusually dishonest campaign. Even aside from the partisanship, you have to be pretty willfully ignorant of history to think the 2008 race is at all exceptional in this regard, other than perhaps the degree of personal villification of one of the vice presidential candidates in a very short period of time. Now, personally I’m not as cynical as Jay Cost or Ross Douthat as far as saying “everybody does it, so what?,” but…well, I look at the accuracy of claims made in advertisements, speeches, etc. under three general categories:
(1) Is it literally true? Does it say anything factually false?
(2) Is it essentially true? Does it say something about the candidate or his/her opponent that is consistent with the point being made?
(3) Is it the whole truth, without any arguably important context or nuance omitted?
One of the reasons I enjoy writing longer-form blog essays is the freedom to drill down to all the relevant context and explain a point even in light of all the facts, all the context, all the nuance. But in the real world of short-attention-span politics, with its 30-second ads and soundbites, we have to accept that #3 is a hurdle that even the best-faith politicians frequently fail, and where politicians who do try to give the full context can end up losing their audience or tying themselves in “I voted for it before I voted against it” verbal knots.
That said, you do need to be able to defend a claim on both ground #1 and #2. If a claim is literally true but conveys a totally false image, you are basically in the Bill Clinton “it depends what the meaning of ‘is’ is” position; if it is intended to convey something people believe but rests on fabricated facts, that’s the Dan Rather “fake but accurate” defense. Either position is ultimately indefensible.
Let’s look at two main examples of recent controversies and how they measure up, as well as examining what I refer to as “McSame Syndrome.”
I. The Obama Immigration Ad
The latest, hottest example, debunked here by Jake Tapper, with context provided here by Rush Limbaugh regarding his own statements quoted in the ad. In a nutshell, the Spanish language ad argues that Limbaugh is hateful and demeaning towards Mexicans and that McCain agrees with Limbaugh on immigration.
On the Limbaugh stuff, the ad is literally true in the narrowest sense – they quote actual sentence fragments uttered by Limbaugh – but as he notes, take them so wildly out of context as to be seriously false. But of course, Rush isn’t the candidate, McCain is, so that’s my main concern. Tapper walks through some of the attenuated efforts by the Obama to defend the factual accuracy of the ad, but its overall theme, which it supports with nothing in the ad, is that McCain is indistinguishable from border hawks like Rush on immigration issues. Which is so absurdly laughable and insulting to the listener’s intelligence you hardly know where to start … it’s like running an ad against Joe Lieberman that says he takes his marching orders on foreign policy from Ted Kennedy. I mean, Rush was at the center of a coordinated effort by right-wing talk shows to block McCain’s nomination in late January, and disagreement with McCain’s more liberal immigration policies was the #1 reason for that. Everybody who pays even the remotest attention to politics knows this.
What it is symptomatic of, on the Obama side, is McSame Syndrome: the absolute refusal, in the face of any and all evidence, of Democrats and liberals to acknowledge that John McCain is not identical in all particulars to George W. Bush and other conservative Republicans. I explained on Monday why Obama’s strategy has trapped him in this narrative, which he simply can’t abandon even when it leads him to the absurd end of making McCain, of all people, out to be some sort of anti-immigrant extremist. Joe Biden’s criticism of McCain for opposing embryonic stem cell research, which McCain has consistently supported, is another example of the same phenomenon. (See here for more of the same on McCain’s regulatory record).
II. The McCain Sex Ed Ad
One of the major sources of hyperventilation against McCain is an ad he ran that, at the end of a litany of Obama’s lack of accomplishments on education, accused Obama of supporting a bill that would teach sex education to kids as young as kindergarteners.
There’s no question at this point that the ad was, in fact, literally accurate. Byron York walks through the bill’s language and legislative history here, and shows fairly clearly that the effect of the bill was, in fact, to take existing rules about sex education for kids in the 6th grade and older and lower the age to kindergarten:
Illinois’ existing law required the teaching of sex education and AIDS prevention in grades six through twelve. The old law read:
Each class or course in comprehensive sex education offered in any of grades 6 through 12 shall include instruction on the prevention, transmission and spread of AIDS.
Senate Bill 99 struck out grade six, changing it to kindergarten, in addition to making a few other changes in wording. It read:
Each class or course in comprehensive sex education in any of grades K through 12 shall include instruction on the prevention of sexually transmitted infections, including the prevention, transmission and spread of HIV.
York also talks to a sponsor of the bill who basically admits that the language of the bill was, in fact, related to the purpose of the bill, and that Barack Obama’s claim that the bill was really only aimed at teaching young children when to report inappropriate touching was not accurate:
When I asked Martinez the rationale for changing grade six to kindergarten, she said that groups like Planned Parenthood and the Cook County Department of Health – both major contributors to the bill – “were finding that there were children younger than the sixth grade that were being inappropriately touched or molested.” When I asked about the elimination of references to marriage and the contraception passages, Martinez said that the changes were “based on some of the information we got from Planned Parenthood.”
After we discussed other aspects of the bill, I told Martinez that reading the bill, I just didn’t see it as being exclusively, or even mostly, about inappropriate touching. “I didn’t see it that way, either,” Martinez said. “It’s just more information about a whole variety of things that have to go into a sex education class, the things that are outdated that you want to amend with things that are much more current.”
So, I asked, you didn’t see it specifically as being about inappropriate touching?
As York summarizes the results of doing actual reporting on the bill:
Obama’s explanation for his vote has been accepted by nearly all commentators. And perhaps that is indeed why he voted for Senate Bill 99, although we don’t know for sure. But we do know that the bill itself was much more than that. The fact is, the bill’s intention was to mandate that issues like contraception and the prevention of sexually-transmitted diseases be included in sex-education classes for children before the sixth grade, and as early as kindergarten. Obama’s defenders may howl, but the bill is what it is.
So, McCain’s ad is literally accurate: he fairly described what Obama actually voted for. But is it a fair ad that gets at an essential truth? My initial reaction to the ad was that despite the factual accuracy it pushed the envelope a bit too far in this regard: Obama probably wasn’t aware of the import of the actual language of the bill, one could legitimately have misunderstandings about what would be construed as “age appropriate” sex education at that age, he thought he was just voting for education about inappropriate touching, and the objectionable provisions were pulled before being passed into law. In essence, legislative negligence, but not any sort of deliberate effort to push teaching about sex on little kids.
But then…well, first of all, on the one hand we have the actual language of the bill, and all we have for the opposite narrative is Obama’s after-the-fact rationalizations. Obama conveniently destroyed all his records from his time in the State Senate, and as is so often true of the memory hole that has swallowed his State Senate career, we seem to have no contemporaneous record of what he was saying at the time about the bill despite the fact that he was the chairman of the committee (York found it hard to even locate people who had served as his colleagues in the State Senate, a persistent problem in getting details about Obama’s past prior to 2004 – Charles Krauthammer noted the near-complete absence of people other than Michelle Obama who stood up to testify from personal knowledge about Obama’s life or work). Then I watched this July 2007 video of Obama from a Planned Parenthood event (H/T). The video is from an ABC News report at the time, entitled “Sex Ed for Kindergarteners ‘Right Thing to Do,’ Says Obama,” – a title undoubtedly craftily planted many months in advance by the McCain campaign, kinda like the way McCain hypnotized the Washington Post into interviewing Frank Raines about his ties to Obama.
While ABC’s title may itself be a bit tendentious, go and watch the video – after giving a fairly good Alan Keyes imitation, Obama laughs about the kindergarten issue but doesn’t exactly deny it (“I didn’t know what to say to him…but it’s the right thing to do”), and launches directly into defending expanded sex education in some very broad terms, and promising to re-create at the federal level what he did in Illinois: “to provide age-appropriate sex education, science-based sex education in the schools.” And note that he’s doing this at an event by Planned Parenthood, a group whose mission has basically nothing to do with sexual abuse of kindergarteners and everything to do with the sex ed agenda, and which – as we saw from the York article – was basically driving the Illinois bill.
The essential truth? If you are a parent who thinks that groups like Planned Parenthood have been pressing for too much sex education in school (and a great many parents do feel that the government should not be pressing its view of sexual morals on children, and that sex education inherently conveys a message about morals if only by their complete absence), and you think Obama is the kind of guy who would support and encourage that through legislation, you are correct, and the Illinois bill is powerful evidence of that. If you think Obama won’t be especially picky about ensuring that there are safeguards in that legislation to keep sex education confined to children who are at an age to be sexually active, the Illinois bill is powerful evidence of that, too. The most that can be said of McCain’s ad is that it takes the plain language of the bill as evidence of an intent by Obama to do something, when we really lack any contemporaneous evidence one way or another of what Obama intended. And that, to me, is really #3 on my list (the omission of context) rather than the more serious problem with #2.