The Smear Gap: McCain’s Obama Attacks

This is hardly the nastiest campaign in recent memory. But it's not shaping up as the "civil" contest that both candidates promised either. Instead, we're seeing the emergence of a "smear gap". John McCain making stuff up about Barack Obama, and Obama trying to figure out how hard he should hit back.

As usual, news organizations are deeply afraid to say that one side is more negative than the other. Doing so sounds "unfair." It's much easier, and less controversial, to say that "both candidates" are being negative. That would be "balanced", but also untrue.

One of the wonders of the Web is that it's now possible for neutral observers to determine the truth or falsity of various attacks, and to have that information instantly available to anyone. The best arbiter is factcheck.org, which is sponsored by the Annenberg Public Policy Center of the University of Pennsylvania (Disclosure: Newsweek.com has a partnership with factcheck.org). If you don't believe me about the smear gap, check their analyses of campaign ads.

Obama has negative ads airing in more than a dozen states below the radar of the national media. One ad, in Ohio, links McCain to the 8,200 lost jobs at DHL, the German-owned overnight delivery service. That goes too far. McCain's support for a merger involving DHL hardly makes him culpable for the job loss. But overall, and to his credit, Obama has not engaged in anywhere near the number of falsehoods as McCain.

For about a month, McCain's campaign has been resorting to charges that are patently false. When Obama traveled abroad in July, to positive reviews, McCain decided he had to make attack ads that went far beyond the norm. In the past, plainly deceptive ads were the province of the Republican National Committee or the Democratic National Committee or independent committees free to fling mud that didn't bear the fingerprints of candidates. But not this time. These smears come directly from the candidate.

First, a McCain ad charged that Obama was responsible for higher gas prices, which was not just false but absurd. Next, an ad said Obama had cancelled his trip to visit wounded soldiers in Germany because he couldn't bring the press along. I was in Germany at the time, and as every reporter knew, the visit to the military hospital was never going to be open, not even to a press pool. It appeared on no press schedules. Obama had cancelled the visit when it was clear that the Pentagon viewed it as political. The charge was simply untrue.

The now famous Britney Spears and Paris Hilton ad, accusing Obama of being a celebrity, wasn't false, just dopey. But it detracted attention from a string of false McCain spots on taxes. One ad said that Obama would raise taxes on electricity. Nope, not in Obama's plan. Another said 23 million small-business owners would pay higher taxes under Obama. Factcheck.org found that the "vast majority" of small-business owners would pay the same in taxes as they do now, and "many" would pay less. An ad saying Obama had voted for a bill raising taxes, for families making more than $42,000 a year, was found to be "false." And McCain's consistent claim that Obama would "raise taxes on the middle class"--a major theme of his campaign--is "simply false," according to this neutral policy center. In truth, under Obama's plan, families earning less than $150,000 a year would get a tax cut, and only those making more than $250,000 would see their taxes rise. Maybe by the time the Democratic Congress got done with it, Obama's tax program would look different. It's reasonable to speculate that Democrats will raise taxes. But the McCain ads weren't talking about that, they were talking about Obama's plan, which is easily accessed on his Web site. McCain's description of his opponent's plan was and is untrue. This isn't opinion, it's fact.

McCain's campaign theme is that he puts the country first and Obama puts himself above his country. It's understandable why this son and grandson of admirals--who has served his country in one way or another since he was 18-years-old, who has never been on a private payroll beyond that of his beer distributor father-in-law--would see himself as someone who puts "America first." He has been a largely honorable public servant for 54 years, and it's acceptable within the confines of sharp debate to portray his opponent as a self-regarding celebrity.

But when he resorts to these kinds of falsehoods, and casts such aspersions on his opponent's patriotism, John McCain is no longer putting his country first. If he were, he would recognize that the interests of the nation require a relatively truthful campaign. To fulfill his image of himself, McCain should stop lying about his opponent. For a man with his claims to honor and integrity, that's not too much to ask.

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