Neither side speaks the truth, so do your homework
Former New York Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan — with whom I served on President Bush's Social Security Commission — often advised, "You are entitled to your opinion, but you are not entitled to your own facts."
When it comes to political rhetoric, facts are hard to come by these days. Overheated, unsubstantiated charges have come early in this year's presidential campaign and are likely to intensify and accelerate as we move beyond the party conventions and approach the November election.
Thankfully, there are resources — like Factcheck.org — to help us sort out fact from fiction. But candidates and their surrogates, including the big-spending SuperPACs, are hoping that we won't do our homework.
Sadly, most of us won't.
Some of the most prominent factual distortions or half-truths involve Medicare. Traditionally, Democrats have been the most persistent and successful in using "Mediscare" campaign tactics. This year, however, senior citizens make up a disproportionate share of the electorate in "swing states" like Florida, Iowa, and Arizona, so both Democrats and Republicans are attempting to paint the opposing party as a threat to Medicare's future.
Mitt Romney and his running mate, Paul Ryan, are accusing President Obama of cutting Medicare by $716 billion dollars, only to use those savings to finance the Affordable Care Act.
That's true, to a certain extent. However, the Republican budget crafted by Ryan assumes that same level of savings in the Medicare program as part of his party's deficit reduction plan.
For his part, President Obama repeatedly asserts that his opponents are out to "end Medicare as we know it," because Romney and Ryan propose a voucher (or premium support) system by which seniors could purchase health care from private insurers. However, Obama's signature achievement — the ACA — requires every state to establish essentially the same kind of premium support system to extend insurance coverage to low- and middle-income families.
Clearly, the attacks from both sides on this issue include a certain degree of hypocrisy. While there are notable differences between the two parties on how to address Medicare's future, sadly, the campaign rhetoric clouds the issue instead of shedding light on the subject. The goal is not to illuminate, but to inflame.
The same can be said of Obama's constant refrain about the "rich" not paying their "fair share." This applause line plays well with audiences. It also helps to draw attention to the fact that his opponent is rich, and therefore not like the rest of us.
But Obama too often uses this mantra to pretend that taxing the rich is all that stands in the way of a balanced budget,or providing more funding for everything from education to transportation to environmental protection to clean energy.
Simple math proves this assertion to be false. Repealing tax cuts for the rich eliminates only about 10 percent of the projected deficit over the next 10 years. What else does Obama propose we do to balance our books?
As for Romney, he and Ryan repeatedly attack Obama for repealing (by executive order) the work requirement in our welfare system. Few would argue that a bipartisan effort led by Democratic President Bill Clinton and a Republican Congress dramatically reduced welfare rolls and delivered better employment outcomes. Though I share the concern about undermining welfare reform, an objective reading of Obama's order does not support the Romney charge.
The executive order merely suggests that states be provided more opportunities to obtain waivers — so long as other approaches are more successful in moving welfare recipients into jobs. As governor of Massachusetts, Romney, in fact, asked for just such a waiver.
We know that campaigns often mislead and distort, making it hard for voters to know what to believe. What is more worrisome is that, increasingly, both sides seem to believe their own rhetoric, although facts would refute their certitude.
Most importantly, the misinformation spouted during campaigns makes it that much more difficult for both sides to get together and legislate once the campaign dust is settled.
That leaves us with gridlock — as both sides seem content in their self-righteousness to simply point fingers and place blame.
Mark Twain once said: "It ain't what you don't know that gets you into trouble.It's what you know for sure that just ain't so."
In politics, what candidates don't know, but still say is so, often gets them elected. And then, unfortunately, it is the country that gets in trouble.