Midterm elections are an embarrassment of riches for fact-checkers — this year more than others. With Democrats fighting desperately to keep control of the House and Senate, and a torrent of money from corporations and other undisclosed, unaccountable sources adding fuel to the Republican attack, the amount of deceit in political advertising is at least as high as we’ve ever seen.
Some candidates slung whatever mud they thought would stick, regardless of the facts. One falsely claimed his opponent had been a Vietnam draft dodger who "doesn’t love his country" — and then compared his opponent to the Taliban.
Republicans accused Democrats of favoring cuts in Medicare benefits, while Democrats claimed their opponents would cut Social Security benefits. Republicans accused Democrats of planning to unleash a huge tax increase on ordinary families and on small-business owners, while many Democrats accused Republicans of wanting to slap a 23 percent national sales tax on everything from groceries to medicine, as though that would come on top of all existing taxes. We found fault with all those claims, on both sides.
For our round-up of the campaign year’s most widely repeated misstatements — and the wildest — read on to the Analysis section.
Health Care Retreads
Misrepresentations of the new health care law have been a staple of Republican campaigns. Some ads go so far as to claim (falsely) that the law would cause Medicare patients to lose their doctors, or (also falsely) that Democrats favored giving Viagra to sex offenders, or (false again) that typical families will pay $2,100 more in premiums.
A common theme is that the law contains a $500 billion Medicare "cut" that will translate into less benefits, but that’s misleading. The law calls for reducing the future growth of Medicare spending over the next 10 years by about 7 percent. Plus, the law stipulates that guaranteed Medicare benefits won’t be reduced, and it adds some new benefits, such as improved coverage for pharmaceuticals. Those seniors on Medicare Advantage plans (one out of four beneficiaries), however, will likely see their extra benefits reduced. These private insurance plans currently receive higher payments from the government than traditional Medicare, and the law decreases those payments over time. In addition, the law calls for reducing the future growth in payments to hospitals and other providers. While experts say some hospitals will have trouble coping with the new spending restraints, ads go too far in claiming that the law will "gut Medicare" or "hurt the quality of our care."
Social Security Hyperbole
A number of Democratic candidates — in Nevada, Wisconsin, Michigan, Kentucky, Colorado and other states — have claimed that their opponents want to abolish or "privatize" Social Security. In most cases that’s a serious overstatement. At one point, the president himself claimed that Republican leaders were as eager to "privatize" Social Security as they were to repeal his health care law, which isn’t true.
Some Republican candidates and incumbents do favor allowing younger workers to invest some portion of their payroll taxes in the stock market, but few if any have supported replacing the current system entirely with a fully privatized system, like the one in Chile. And even voluntary, partial privatization is far from the top of the GOP agenda. The idea died for lack of GOP support when President Bush tried to push it through a Republican-controlled Congress in 2005.
Taxing the Truth, Part I
Another misleading Republican theme is that Democrats are about to unleash a huge tax increase on the typical family, or on small-business owners. Former Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin said "Democrats are poised now to cause this largest tax increase in U.S. history." Similar claims have been spread by Republican TV ads, by widely forwarded chain e-mails, in interviews and even by "tweets" and other social media.
It’s true that the tax cuts of 2001 and 2003 are set to expire at the end of this year, under terms set in law by a Republican Congress and President George W. Bush. But Democrats have said all along that they don’t intend to let all of the tax cuts expire, or even most of them. President Obama and most House and Senate Democrats favor keeping all the cuts that apply to taxpayers who earn less than $250,000 as a couple, or $200,000 as single filers. In addition, a number of conservative Democrats (or those nervous about reelection) even say they favor extending the cuts for everybody — including those at the top — at least for another year or two. A lame-duck Congress will decide, after the election.
As for the claim that Democrats favor "a huge tax hike on small business," in the words of one ad, that’s also wrong for the vast majority of small-business owners. Only about 3 percent of those with any business income showing on their personal returns would see a tax increase. Republicans retreated to claiming that half the small-business "income" — as opposed to business owners — would see an increase. But that’s wrong, too. Much of the "small"-business income they are counting comes from businesses with yearly income of $50 million or more — which is big business income in just about anybody’s book.
Taxing the Truth, Part II
In dozens of TV ads, Democrats or Democratic-leaning groups accused Republicans of favoring a 23 percent national sales tax, as though such a thing would come in addition to existing taxes. The attacks (which were also made in fancy mail pieces) amounted to a misrepresentation of the "FairTax" proposal. The claims failed to mention that the sales tax would replace — not add to — existing federal income and payroll taxes. Democrats also left out any mention of offsetting rebates designed to mitigate the increased cost of essentials like food and medicine — a main feature of the FairTax proposal.
In the past, we’ve written about the FairTax from the other side: In 2007, we pointed out misleading claims by FairTax proponents. We noted that a bipartisan panel of tax experts — put together by President George W. Bush — had rejected the idea and said the tax would have to amount to at least 34 percent (not 23 percent) of the sales price of goods and services to raise enough revenue to replace other federal taxes. But that’s no excuse for misrepresenting the proposal, so this year our darts are pointed the other way.
Ads by Republicans in Connecticut, Florida, Washington, South Dakota, Ohio, Pennsylvania and elsewhere have claimed that the economic stimulus has failed to create jobs. We heard the same claims on talk shows and in speeches. House Minority Leader John Boehner even said in an address that the stimulus had harmed the job situation, since "America’s employers are afraid to invest in an economy stalled by ‘stimulus’ spending and hamstrung by uncertainty."
In fact, the nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office estimates that the stimulus increased employment by between 1.4 million and 3.3 million people, compared with what employment would have been otherwise. Observers may differ on whether that’s a reasonable return on investment, but it’s not accurate to say that the stimulus harmed employment or that it didn’t help.
Far Out on Bailout
Everybody took the Wall Street bailout’s name in vain this campaign season. Democratic House incumbents in nine states claimed that they voted against "the bailout" — meaning the Troubled Asset Relief Program — when in fact they weren’t yet in office when it was enacted. (They voted against a later bill to allow release of the second half of TARP funds, a purely symbolic and futile vote. The Senate had already approved release and only disapproval by both houses could freeze the funds under terms set by the original bailout legislation.)
Meanwhile, some Republican ads accused Democratic House members of voting to give huge bonuses to Wall Street employees. That’s a misleading reference to the stimulus bill — its final version contained looser restrictions on bonuses than the version originally passed in the Senate. But the actual funds used by companies for those bonuses came from TARP, not the stimulus, and nothing in the bill the Democrats supported called for or supported bonuses. The enacted bill simply failed to prevent as many of them as the Senate version might have.
Some of the ads we saw stood out for their egregiously false claims:
Whopper: Daniel Webster is un-American. Webster’s opponent for the House seat in Florida’s 8th Congressional District, Democrat Alan Grayson, falsely claimed that Webster was a draft dodger who "doesn’t love his country." In fact, Webster dutifully reported for the draft after finishing his undergraduate degree, but was rejected for medical reasons. Grayson then launched an ad calling his opponent "Taliban Dan" and misrepresenting a quote in which Webster talked about a woman’s role in marriage. The ad’s misleading editing changed "don’t pick the [Bible verses] that say, ‘She should submit to me’ " into "she should submit to me."
Whopper: Rick Scott loves prisoners. And pornography. An outside group in Florida ran an ad claiming that gubernatorial candidate Rick Scott, a Republican, had a plan to close prisons that would "release tens of thousands of prisoners early." In fact, Scott proposed cutting prison spending per prisoner. That led a state official to speculate that "you would have to close prisons," but that’s not what Scott proposed. Another group accused Scott of "profiting from porn." The weak backup? Scott has an investment in a Latin American social networking site that has partnered with Playboy Mexico to find the Playmate of the Year.
Whopper: Mark Kirk single-handedly stopped the bridges to nowhere. The Illinois Senate race between Republican Kirk and Democrat Alexi Giannoulias has given rise to a number of false accusations, but for our money the most eyebrow-raising was Kirk’s claim on "Meet the Press" that an amendment he wrote put a stop to the "bridges to nowhere," long a symbol of government pork. In fact, one of the bridges is being built even now. The other wasn’t felled by Kirk’s amendment either — the earmark for the bridges had been stripped from a transportation appropriations bill a year earlier. The Kirk amendment never even made it into the final version of the legislation to which it was briefly attached.
Outside groups have proliferated in Campaign 2010, many raising tens of millions from undisclosed sources, including business corporations, and funding ads that mostly attack Democrats. These front groups adopt names that — while not exactly whoppers themselves — seldom give any inkling of the groups’ highly partisan missions. In our 2010 Players Guide we report on who’s really behind groups such as the Committee for Truth in Politics, Revere America and American Crossroads. Labor unions are spending heavily, too, defending Democrats. Our guide covers such big union players as the AFL-CIO and the Service Employees International Union, which together pledged to spend $100 million.
Ads by outside groups have often been misleading, and we’ve already covered some examples above. In addition, we note some whoppers told about these groups, on both sides.
Embattled Democrats strained to discredit the U.S. Chamber of Commerce with an unproven allegation, claiming that it was "stealing our democracy" by funneling secret, illegal contributions from foreign corporations. The truth is that the chamber gets only a tiny fraction of its money from foreign corporations, and has more than enough from domestic companies to legally fund its planned $75 million election spending.
Republican strategist Karl Rove, who helped set up one of the largest corporate-funded, Republican-leaning groups, falsely claimed that labor unions aren’t disclosing where they get the millions they are spending. The truth is that their money comes overwhelmingly from dues collected from members, as their annual reports to the U.S. Department of Labor clearly show.
The claims we’re asked about most often don’t always come from the mouths of politicians, or even their TV ads. Maybe because these claims are pure bohonkey. The falsehoods circulate widely by e-mail, forwarded by people who either don’t know or don’t care that they are spreading misinformation the way a virus spreads disease.
Whopper: The health care law puts a 3.8 percent tax on all home sales. Actually, the new health care law’s tax only applies to the sale of a primary residence in rare cases. For individuals, it falls on profit that exceeds $250,000, if the individual’s income exceeds $200,000. For couples, the tax falls only on profits exceeding $500,000, if joint income is more than $250,000.
Whopper: Obama plans a 1 percent tax on all bank transactions. That’s based on a single House member’s bill that isn’t supported by the White House, has no cosponsors, and has never even gotten a hearing in committee.
Whopper: Congress voted itself a pay raise at the expense of the Social Security Cost of Living Adjustment. It’s true that there has been no COLA for 2010 and 2011, but the COLA is calculated automatically based on inflation rates. And Congress voted to freeze its pay for 2010 and 2011.
by Jess Henig, Viveca Novak and Brooks Jackson for factcheck.org.