Egregious, mendacious, audacious


We denizens of the reality-based community are overburdened during this campaign season; it's impossible to track all the lies, much less deconstruct them. The only sane course of action is to focus on the lies that are most egregious, or most mendacious, or breathtakingly audacious.

How about all three? Consider John McCain's current claim, in his TV and radio commercials, that Barack Obama "voted to raise taxes on people making just $42,000." That's the kind of claim Republicans love to make, because they know that millions of voters are predisposed to view all Democrats as tax-hikers. And this particular McCain ad is clearly in heavy rotation, because last night I saw the TV version four times within 90 minutes. The only problem is that the alleged straight talker's claim is false or misleading - in at least five respects:

1. McCain was referring to Obama's vote on a non-binding Democratic Senate budget resolution that was just a potential blueprint for future government revenues and spending, and therefore, by definition, would not have raised anybody's taxes.

2. There is nary a mention in the Obama campaign's tax plan about raising taxes on people who make $42,000. On the contrary, the campaign yesterday released details which show that Obama is focusing on the upper-income brackets - proposing, for instance, that the tax rates on capital gains and dividend income should be higher for people making more than $200,000, and that Social Security payroll taxes on earnings above $250,000 should be phased in over the next decade.

3. As the McCain voiceover floats the claim about Obama voting to raise taxes on people making $42,000, the words "Raise Taxes on the Middle Class" float on the TV screen. False again. The actual Obama agenda promises a $1000 tax cut for families that earn up to $150,000 - an income range that actually exceeds the middle class, at least by the U.S. Census Bureau's definition of the middle class.

4. As the McCain voiceover floats its claim, the TV ad flashes a quick image of a mother reading to her two kids. This leaves the impression that a mother of two would have been one of the "people" affected by Obama's vote to raise taxes on earners of $42,000. (Even though that vote would not have actually raised anyone's taxes. See first item.) But even under the terms of the non-binding Senate resolution that went nowehere, a mother of two would not have paid higher taxes unless she earned around $62,000 (if she was single) or earned around $90,000 (if she was married and filed jointly with her spouse). And those levy hikes would have been small anyway, as the next item suggests.

5. The language of the non-binding Senate resolution would only have affected single taxpayers making $42,000 - and their annual tax increase, as calculated by non-partisan fact-checkers, would have amounted to...$15.

How to explain this aversion to factual reality? John Pitney, a former deputy research director at the Republican National Committee, gave it a try the other day, telling The Congressional Quarterly online, "You've got two different sets of standards here: The standard you would use in journalism or scholarship, and the standard you would use in a political campaign."

This is how Republicans traditionally play the game - indeed, "maverick" McCain is a traditional Republican - and they do it because it works. The McCain camp and GOP headquarters have also been floating the claim that Obama has voted "94 times" for higher taxes, even though non-partisan watchdogs have already pointed out that 53 of his votes were on budget measures that lack the authority to raise taxes; that 11 of his votes were in favor of raising taxes on people making $1 million or more, in order to better fund veterans' health care and child nutrition programs; and that 23 of his votes were merely in opposition to new tax cuts proposed by Republicans (in other words, he was voting to keep taxes the same, not raise them).

As I well remember, the GOP ran this drill four years ago. That spring, they claimed that John Kerry "voted 350 times for higher taxes on the American people." Then it turned out, under closer inspection, that the Republican tally had egregiously padded the tally, counting things like Kerry's refusal to repeal the windfall profits tax on Big Oil, and his refusal to cut the federal tax on cigarettes).  So the party simply shrugged off the old number - lying, apparently, is not grounds for embarrassment - and simply came up with a new number, claiming in a retooled TV ad that Kerry had voted to raise taxes "98 times." Even though that number turned out to be false, in much the same way as McCain's current "94 times."

One more '04 reminisence, which resonates today: In April of that year, Kerry was very competitive with President Bush in the Florida polls - until a new GOP ad went into heavy rotation on TV. I saw it myself, repeatedly so, during a work trip that month in Miami. It claimed that Kerry had "supported higher gasoline taxes 11 times." Few viewers took the time to discover what the facts actually were: In various parliamentary manuevers on one measure, Kerry had voted nine times to approve or defend one federal gas tax hike (that's nine of the 11 times right there) - and that tax hike was a whopping 4.3 cents, enacted as part of President Clinton's '93 balanced-budget package. The 10th vote was in opposition to a plan to suspend gas taxes for six months (in other words, not an increase at all). The 11th vote was not even a vote; in 1994, Kerry had spoken favorably about the idea of hiking the gas tax by 50 cents, but he never voted for such a measure. Moreover (and this was my favorite detail), the notion of a 50-cent gas tax hike was later praised by an economist named Gregory Manikiw...who, at the same time that Bush was hammering Kerry with this false TV ad, was serving Bush as chairman of the Council of Economic Advisors.

Yet none of this mattered in Florida. Perhaps it was sheer coincidence that Kerry's Florida numbers fell (and never recovered) while this ad was saturating the airwaves. More likely the lies worked as intended in 2004, which is why the "maverick" tells us today, seemingly on the hour, that he's John McCain and he approves this message.