Factual Accuracy and McSame Syndrome

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?

“Absolutely not.”

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.

12 thoughts on “Factual Accuracy and McSame Syndrome”

  1. I’m not sure I understand you’re partial defense of Obama here. It seems at first you’re saying: Maybe he didn’t read the language of the bill thoroughly enough to see that it would teach sex ed to kindergartners. To which I’d reply: A) He was the bills foremost sponsor, wasn’t he? How could he not know what was in it? and B) If he is promoting legislation without thoroughly reading said legislation, what kind of incompetent half-ass is he? Either postulate shows a legislator with a deficiency of judgment, ethics, and accountability. Finally, you seem to say that it could be argued that we can’t really infer what Obama’s intent is based only on the language of the bill. But the bill is the point of contention, and it’s language is clear, and even more specific after Obama’s revisions: SB99 struck out grade six and changed it to kindergarten, and added the phrase “instruction on the prevention of SEXUALLY TRANSMITTED INFECTIONS”…to kindergartners. He’s either a liar or a fool, or a liar and a fool.

  2. Why is it that Obama (like Clinton, Kerry, and Gore before him) are not forthright about their past? Are they not proud of what they did? Why aren’t they willing to provide records of their school grades, military records, etc. so we can judge them for what they did and not just what they say they did or will do?
    Why does the media give them a pass on this? Dan Rather was willing to probe Bush’s National Guard records but unwilling to explore Kerry’s military record. Why the double standard?
    Frustrating, isn’t it?

  3. Well Lee, Kerry was in combat, and won medals. How the were earned is a matter of conjecture if your eyes (but do notice how McCain doesn’t like to be, in his own terms, Swift Boated, meaning it’s probably wrong). Bush’s quasi military record is more a matter of: was he stoned the entire time, and how did he get in without Pappy’s influence, as opposed to Gore, who volunteered for Viet Nam. So it’s not a double standard. You want to question 2 military vets fine, but not a stoner who wasn’t where he was supposed to be and a real vet.

  4. Daryl,
    I am confused by your response. Are you saying it does not bother you that Obama does not share his past accomplishments and for the media not to push the issue? Please explain.

  5. Crank/Joe — Anybody with a morsel of decency would find the Sex Ed Ad disgraceful. Admiral McCain should be ashamed of himself; he can put all that bullsh*t honor he loves to drone on about in his goofy hat and smoke it.
    Who cares how Obama voted on this stupid law? Does it have anything to do with how he will prevent this country from going into default? or how he will repair our tattered reputation around the globe? or how will rebuild our armed forces after being stretched to a near breaking point? or how he will make basic health insurance affordable? Of course not — its simply a way to alarm the most ignorant voters in the country, i.e. the same people who voted GWB into office twice.
    Now regarding McSame: the similarities between the two blowhards are infinite. And Crank, you brushed up on a key similarity in an earlier post when noted his eagerness to fire Chairman Cox.
    Sure Bush treats members of his administration like old frat buddies and rarely holds anyone accountable for anything. But, both men share an approach to leadership where all responsibility is delegated downwards.
    Bob Woodward’s latest book is one more account of how GWB took no interest in the details of the War in Iraq. He believed the military should be given full reign over the operation with no civilian interference. McCain on the other hand, probably would have fired his generals on a weekly basis.
    What we really need however is a president who understands the details and is able to discern when a commander needs to be replaced or needs assistance or needs to be overruled.
    Neither men show any ability to take charge in that manner and instead simply turn the keys over to other folks. GWB will praise the man’s driving ability while the car is getting towed out of a ditch; and McCain will be swatting the driver from the back seat with his cane. But neither will ever get behind the wheel.

  6. Lee, the comment I was bothered by was the so called double standard regarding Kerry and Bush, not the past histories of Clinton, Kerry and Gore, that I was referring to. However, thee was also a double standard regarding Gore and Bush. The reasons were:
    1. Bush got into the Air National Guard simply because dad and grandpa pulled strings to keep him out of Viet Nam. Yer he didn’t have the decency to report, one assumes because he would fail every urine test. Kerry was a combat veteran. Yet he was Swift Boated, not Bush.
    2.And everyone always forgets that Gore volunteered for Viet Nam. He felt a sense of responsibility to be there since his dad was in the Senate.
    So my own feeling was that if there was a double standard, it was in Bush’s favor. So the outrage was, I feel misplaced. It sort of reminds me of a bit from The Daily Show, when some senator, I forget who now, complained about how the persecution of Christians in America just won’t end. Now never ever ever give Jon Stewart that kind of bullshit, because he will skewer you, but that was what I felt. Everyone feels there is a double standard when you disagree with an opinion.
    3. BTW, when did Clinton ever fog over his history? Unless you mean Hillary, and let’s face it, it’s almost impossible to hind something when you have been a First Lady (First Dudette?), Senator and Presidential Candidate. Same thing with Al Gore. If anyone fogged over anything it was W. Also Cheney, who found new and creative ways to avoid the military service that Al Gore and John Kerry managed to participate in.

  7. Patrick – Interesting analysis of the language of the Illinois statute, there.
    Daryl – You have a decidedly abstract view of Bush’s National Guard record, unpolluted by the evidence. I blogged that to death back in the day and have no desire to rehash it, but the details are rather different. (But note: as I consistently said in 2004, I never doubted or denied that Kerry’s service record was a legitimate plus over Bush’s).
    Clinton? To give the obvious examples, they kept Hillary’s commodities deal out of the press until after the 1992 election by playing hide-the-ball with their tax returns. A lot of Bill’s sexual dalliances were either falsely denied or left unspoken until after that election (I know, Clinton supporters can reassure themselves that that was history and Bill would never have been reckless enough to keep doing it in office…). The whole ugly Whitewater business disappeared after the one NYT article. Clinton in 92 was repeatedly on the verge of being knocked out by the one scandal too many, but managed to keep those at bay so they dripped out slowly over the following 8 years.

  8. Daryl,
    So while you are taking issue with my selection of Clinton, Gore, and Kerry as not providing their past records and saying that Republicans have done the same, that it does not bother you that Obama (and maybe in your opinion also McCain/Palin) do not share past accomplishments and for the media not to push the issue? Is it OK for a candidate for POUS to keep such information from the public eye? Is that what you are saying?

  9. Lee, that wasn’t what I said. I selected Kerry/Bush as an unfair claim to a double standard–and I think it was a mistake that Gore did not drive that home, but his campaign will make so many people PhDs in years to come, we won’t be able to count. I never brought up Obama. And I also said that, in this day and age,nothing can be kept hidden. There is no such thing as a secret record. Plus, somebody talks, somebody always does.

  10. Darryl,
    OK so it DOES bother you that people don’t share their records BUT you feel that “…nothing can be kept hidden. There is no such thing as a secret record. Plus, somebody talks, somebody always does.”
    How did Clinton keep his affairs secret prior to the 1992 election? How was Gore’s Buddist Monk fund raising kept at such low visibility? How was Kerry’s contacts with the North Vietnamese kept out of the headlines? If Bush’s National Guard service was an issue, how was that not brought out during the 2000 election? These are just a few examples of where “secrets” were kept prior to an election.
    So (for example) Obama’s college grades, his voting record as a Illinois legislator, his true relationship with Ayers, etc. is best detailed by others and not by the Candidate himself? Issues related to McCain/Palin could also be listed.
    OK, so if others are supposed to do this (like the bloggers and the media), then why when such information is detailed the first action (by either side) is to delve into the motivation/background of the people doing the publishing and not into the validity of the claim? Why is the reaction to slime the messenger? Remember the drag $20 thru a trailer part remark by Carvelle? Or what about if the media (who state that they must stay unbiased) only detail negative issues about one party and avoid investigations into the other party? Or if the media actively tries to explain away issues with one candidate but does not do the same for the other?
    What do you think about the above?

  11. Lee, I think exactly as I did before. When someone is rooting for one side or another, they will always see anything negative as only one sided. Not an accusation, it’s an observation. We all do it. How many people bitch and moan about a national sportscaster, who “they” all say roots against “my” team. They aren’t, they just don’t gush about “your” team. Same here.
    I should amend my comment that now nothing is hidden. Nothing is ever hidden. However, in this new information day and age, things simply come to light more quickly. So while certain new agency clearly have a double standard, Fox as an excellent example, or the Enquirer (they clearly treat martian/earth children better than purebreads of either planet), in most cases, what we see as bias is really just more news. And we don’t like it when it’s against our stands (no matter which side of the aisle you are on).

  12. Darryl,
    I will have to respectfully disagree with you. While we all have our bias, not all of us let our bias drive every thing we write or say. Also, since we are intelligent beings, we can choose not to react instinctively; rather we can react with intelligence.
    If we choose to response to information that conflicts with our world view with “Well Bush sucks” as the sole content of our intellectual repartee, then we are hardly investing any intellectual capital into the discussion. If we instead provide thoughtful replies that hone in on the key points of a person’s argument; we have an opportunity to open their eyes to another point of view. Maybe they will begin to see things if a different light.
    An example (I am making up the numbers), let’s say I state that because 90% of the media voted Democratic in the last 4 Presidential elections, that means that anything they write is biased. While the facts of the media voting maybe true; it does not mean that what they write/report is biased.
    On the other hand, if I state (again I am making up the numbers) that headline articles run during a particular time period were about Obama 70% of the time and McCain only 30% of the time. Then I also state that upon analyzing these articles, the Obama articles showed him favorable 80% of the time; while the McCain articles only showed him favorably 40% of the time. These would be facts that would seem to indicate bias by professional news people that they are not subjugating very well.
    So what is my point? I expect NEWS people to give me the NEWS; not their VIEWS. I expect them to manage any bias they have and provide information that contains relevant facts w/o injecting their opinions. No matter what organization they are (CBS, ABC, NYT, CNN, Associated Press, or FOX). If they want to express opinions, they should indicate that that is what they are doing. Don’t disguise opinion pieces as news stories.
    I also expect these people to not attack the messenger; rather investigate the message.
    Is this too much to ask of people who are trained and paid to do this for a living?

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