Americans who tuned in to the last round of John McCain and Barack Obama campaign rallies will be voting Tuesday with some false notes ringing in their ears along with the hurrahs.
McCain and running mate Sarah Palin, right down to the wire, persisted in distortions that were discredited long ago. Obama, who has been more responsive lately to being called out on his misstatements, did a rhetorical dance that avoided some of the bogus claims of the past. Even so, not all of his words bore up to scrutiny.
Altogether, facts took a beating in the campaign. McCain and Obama produced enduring myths that their running mates and supporters amplified and distorted even more. When a non-licensed plumber who owes back taxes and would get a tax cut under Obama is held out by McCain as a stand-in for average working people who should vote Republican, you know truth-telling took a back seat to myth-making.
Today, McCain gave a final airing to unsupported statements and half-baked truths at rallies such as one in Tampa, Fla., where he said:
—"My friends, if I'm elected president, I won't spend nearly a trillion dollars more of your money. Sen. Obama will."
THE FACTS: McCain's health care plan alone is estimated to cost $1.3 trillion over 10 years by the nonpartisan Tax Policy Center, which also estimates that McCain's tax cuts and spending programs would drive up the national debt by $5 trillion in a decade.
—"We're not going spend $750 billion of your money just bailing out the Wall Street banker and broker who got us into this mess. Sen. Obama will. I'm going to make sure we take care of the working people who were devastated by the excesses of Wall Street and Washington."
THE FACTS: McCain supported the financial bailout, even suspending his campaign to work for passage of the failed $700 billion version that was geared even less toward families than the version that passed — also with his vote. Obama backed the bailout, too. Both added more relief for families in their own platforms.
—"We're going stop sending $700 billion to buy oil from countries that don't like us very much."
THE FACTS: A wildly inflated figure that McCain kept using after it was refuted.
Palin told two tall tales almost in the same breath in her final rallies. In Jefferson City, Mo., she declared about Obama: "He voted 94 times for higher taxes, even on hardworking, middle-class Americans making just $42,000 a year."
THE FACTS: This highly misleading if not fictional count includes times when Obama voted to cut taxes for the middle class — that's cut, not raise — while increasing them on the rich. An analysis by FactCheck.org found that 23 of the votes were for measures that would have produced no tax increase at all, seven were for measures that would have lowered taxes for many, 11 would have increased taxes on only those making more than $1 million a year. Her count also includes repetitive votes for the same measure.
Palin's claim that Obama voted for higher taxes on workers making as little as $42,000 is also off the mark. Obama voted for a nonbinding budget resolution that assumed certain Bush tax cuts would expire on schedule. Translated into tax law, that could mean $15 more in taxes for an individual making $42,000, says FactCheck.org. But there has been no move to put such higher rates into law.
In any event, Obama proposes tax cuts for most people earning less than $200,000 and no increases for those taxpayers.
Obama's 'Oh, mamas'
Obama's remarks at a rally in Jacksonville, Fla., also twisted some facts and omitted important details:
—"If you make less than $250,000 a year, your taxes will not increase one single dime. Not your income tax. Not your payroll tax. Not your capital gains tax. "
THE FACTS: Not quite. Individual taxpayers making over $200,000 would see tax increases under his plan, along with those who report joint income over $250,000.
— "I'm going to go through the federal budget line by line, ending programs we don't need. "
THE FACTS: Obama has been unable or unwilling to identify programs he would cut. Instead, he offers this pain-free prescription. Obama did identify a specific savings early on, proposing to delay certain NASA missions to help pay for his education plan. Then he reversed himself. NASA spending is important to Florida, a state important to him Tuesday. He'd save billions by withdrawing troops from Iraq but plans to augment forces in Afghanistan.
—"He's been a sidekick to George W. Bush, voting for the Bush tax cuts for the wealthy that he once said were irresponsible." "This out-of-touch, on-your-own economic philosophy that says you should give $700,000 tax cuts to the average Fortune 500 CEO, $300 billion to the same Wall Street banks that got us into this mess. A philosophy that says we shouldn't give a penny of relief to more than 100 million middle-class Americans."
THE FACTS: Obama also supported bailing out institutions "that got us into this mess." The Bush-McCain "philosophy" he's criticizing has not denied "a penny of relief" to middle-income Americans. Bush's first-term tax cuts were across the board, of most dollar value to the wealthy but spread among all taxed incomes, and Obama plans to continue them for all but the richest when the cuts are due to expire.
Moreover, the government sent tax-rebate checks this year to all taxpayers except the wealthy and those earning less than $3,000.
—"If you already have health insurance, the only thing that will change under my plan is that we're going to lower your premiums. "
THE FACTS: At least in these remarks, Obama hewed closer to reality by leaving out one of the most notoriously unsupported figures in his campaign-long pitch — that his plan will lower family health care costs by $2,500. His plan does not lower premiums by a set amount but rather envisions savings being passed on to the consumer over time as efficiencies from information technology and preventive care are realized.
Such last-minute claims capped a campaign in which the truth was often stretched to the breaking point.
Months ago, Obama saddled McCain with a bum rap when he accused the Republican of wanting a 100-year war in Iraq back in the spring. Finally he relented and said McCain sees U.S. troops being in Iraq for 100 years. That's closer to right — as a peacekeeping force like the one in South Korea. But McCain might be long associated with war without end.
Obama accused McCain of wanting to privatize Social Security, which he doesn't. Now he accuses McCain of wanting to privatize "part" of Social Security, which he does, as one option that younger workers could choose.
For his part, McCain blithely carried on with a variety of discredited claims, abetted by a running mate whose exuberance was not at all dimmed by contrary evidence.
Some of the classics:
Health Care Horrors
It only took McCain and Palin a few words to bend Obama's health care plan out of recognition.
McCain told supporters he "won't fine small businesses and families with children, as Sen. Obama proposes, to force them into a new, huge, government-run health care program, while I keep the cost of the fine a secret until I hit you with it."
Palin talks about Obama's "universal government-run program" and adds: "I don't think it's going to be real pleasing for Americans to consider health care being taken over by the Feds."
Obama's plan doesn't fine small businesses. It doesn't force families with children, or anyone, into government-run health care. And the Feds wouldn't be taking over the system.
McCain's health plan was distorted, in turn, by Obama.
"Your health care benefits will get taxed for the first time in history," Obama warned voters in attacking it. He often leads voters to think that's the full story. Hardly.
McCain, in exchange for proposing to tax the value of health benefits provided by employers, would offer a tax credit to help people buy insurance. That tax benefit — $5,000 for a family — gives people much more than the new taxation takes away.
When Palin ran for governor, she indicated her support for a proposal to build a nearly $400 million bridge from Ketchikan, Alaska, to an island with 50 residents and an airport. She was, at times, wishy-washy about it.
But that doesn't make for a compelling line against government waste on the stump.
So her stance became: "I told the Congress 'thanks, but no thanks' for that Bridge to Nowhere." And a campaign ad declared she "stopped the Bridge to Nowhere."
Actually, during her campaign for governor, she vowed to defend Southeast Alaska "when proposals are on the table like the bridge, and not allow the spinmeisters to turn this project or any other into something that's so negative." At the time, the chief "spinmeister" against the project was McCain.
As governor, she abandoned the bridge after Washington pulled the money from it, letting the federal dollars be used for other projects in the state.
In September, her transportation department completed a $25 million gravel road to nowhere. Officials went ahead with the road, which would have led to the bridge, even though it has no purpose other than for foot races, hunting vehicles and possible future development.
Guilt by association
William Ayers, a University of Illinois education professor and former member of the radical Weather Underground, was front and center in Republican claims that Obama was "palling around with terrorists," as Palin put it.
Ayers had a meet-the-candidate event in his home for Obama early in the Democrat's political career. The two served on the board of the Woods Fund. And they live in the same Chicago neighborhood.
McCain and Palin stretched the extent of that relationship to link Obama with shadowy figures.
Beyond that, they falsely implied that Ayers used the occasion of the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks to wish even greater harm.
"We don't care about an old washed-up terrorist and his wife, who still, at least on Sept. 11, 2001, said he still wanted to bomb more," McCain told a rally.
This distortion originated in Hillary Rodham Clinton's play book during the primaries, when she criticized Obama for the same relationship.
Ayers, Clinton said, made comments "which were deeply hurtful to people in New York and, I would hope, to every American, because they were published on 9/11, and he said that he was just sorry they hadn't done more."
By coincidence, The New York Times published a story on the day of the attacks about Ayers and what he called his fictionalized memoirs. The story was based on an interview he had done earlier, in Chicago, in which he declared, "I don't regret setting bombs," and "I feel we didn't do enough," even while seeming to dissociate himself coyly from the group's most destructive acts.
Late in the campaign, McCain and Palin criticized Obama for attending a 2003 party for Rashid Khalidi, a Palestinian-American professor and critic of Israel. But McCain is also linked Khalidi. The professor was a founder of the Center for Palestine Research and Studies, which received $448,000 from an organization McCain chairs.
—$4 billion: "John, you want to give oil companies another $4 billion" in tax breaks, Obama told McCain in a debate.
In fact, McCain supports a cut in income taxes for all corporations, and doesn't single out any one industry for that benefit.
—$882 billion: "Sen. McCain would pay for part of his plan by making drastic cuts in Medicare — $882 billion worth," Obama said. Obama ads claim McCain would cut benefits by 22 percent.
McCain's plan proposes neither. He wants to save money the same way Obama wants to — by making programs such as Medicare more efficient.
Obama's claim misrepresents what a McCain adviser said in a Wall Street Journal story and adds distorted analysis from a partisan think tank to come up with something that goes against what McCain says he would do — protect promised benefits from being cut.