THE PLANK SEPTEMBER 19, 2008
There's been a big upsurge of conservative commentary lashing Barack Obama for his Spanish-language television spot tying
John McCain to offensive statements by Rush Limbaugh. The statements
are so out of context as to be misleading, and the unstated implication
that McCain shares Limbaugh's views on immigration is misleading.
Conservatives are right to be upset, and Obama's supporters ought to
think less of him for running the ad.
the conservatives invariably go on to insist that this proves that
Obama is at least as dishonest as McCain, and why aren't the media
scrutinizing him the way they have McCain, and it must be because
they're LIBERAL LIBERAL LIBERAL.
But the mainstream press is taking Obama to task for his ad. (See here
and here, and there's much more if you look.) The problem is that
McCain has made many more, and more serious, falsehoods than Obama
does. (I explain this, and more, in a new TNR article.) It's not like
pundits started questioning McCain's honesty after one or two
misleading statements. It's the sustained, blatant indifference to
truth he's exhibited that has made many former admirers question his
think the intent of these complaints is to force the media back into
its previous posture of declaring both sides equally wrong no matter
how unequal the underlying facts. For instance, NBC's Domenico Montanaro calls
a new Obama ad unfair for accusing McCain of having voted to cut
spending on education and having proposed to abolish the Department of
Education. (This ad is the other piece of evidence conservatives have
been citing to show that Obama is just as dishonest as McCain.)
concedes that McCain voted for a budget that cut federal education
spending, and that he said, "I would certainly favor doing away with
the Department of Energy, and I think that given the origins of the
Department of Education, I would favor doing away with it as well." But
Montanaro says the attack is unfair because McCain has voted for another
bill that increased education spending, and because he endorsed No
Child Left Behind, which proves that "it seems unlikely McCain has any
intention of abolishing the Department of Education should he be
certainly concede that Obama's ad is not the sort of balanced treatment of
McCain's education record that you'd write for a nonpartisan voter
guide. But is it inaccurate? Only according to a standard that would
make any political claim inaccurate. That's a standard
that benefits and encourages the worst liar. If the media is going to
ding every ad as unfair, then why not be the most unfair?
Michael Scherer of Time criticizes
Obama for ads that attack McCain's support for Social Security
privatization and against support for renewable energy. Why is this
unfair? On Social Security, he argues, "Now, it is true that
McCain did support President Bush's effort to privatize a portion of
Social Security. But it is not true that McCain is running for
president on a platform of turning Social Security over to Wall Street."
okay, McCain certainly isn't running on privatization in the sense of
hoping every voter is aware of his position on the issue. But he has
spoken out in favor of privatization and never retracted his view. In
Mike cites today on the blog, Steve Schmidt openly defends McCain's
privatization plan, while distancing himself from the term
"privatization" (which was devised by advocates of privatization but
ditched recently when it proved unpopular):
not ever talked about outsourcing Social Security into the private
sector," senior adviser Steve Schmidt told reporters Thursday. "What
people talk about with regard to personal accounts is giving the
American people an ability to have a greater return on an investment --
it could be bond funds, for example."
I can't fathom what problem Mike, who's a good reporter, could possibly have with Obama's ad on Social Security.
for the energy ad, it's true that McCain says he favors alternative
energy subsidies. But there was a vote on such subsidies this year, and
McCain opposed it.
(It was paid for by retracting a 2005 tax cut for oil companies.) Can't
Obama criticize McCain for that position? It would be inaccurate to say
that McCain opposes those measures, but it seems fair to point out
where his record contradicts his rhetoric.
education and energy ads are slightly unfair, because they focus on
McCain's votes or old positions and ignore his current positions. But
that's very standard in politics. You might say that McCain's attack on
Obama for wanting to raise middle-class taxes is no worse. However,
McCain is citing a budget resolution that envisioned a tax hike, which
is not quite the same thing as voting to raise taxes. Plus, he seriously misstates
the income levels of those who would have been effected by the budget
resolution had it been an actual budget. On top of that, and most
dishonest of all, McCain repeatedly says that Obama plans higher taxes on the middle class, which is false.
defenders are trying to do what malfeasors of all kinds tend to do:
muddy the waters by retreating to moral relativism. No, Obama isn't a
saint, and I certainly don't recommend his ads or campaign statements
as a source of unbiased voter information. And the media certainly
ought to call him on his distortions, like the Spanish-language ad. But
there are clear distinctions here, and they matter.