At a time when the presidential race is tightening and an important election looms, voters might expect some straight talk from candidates about their own policies and their opponents' views. They would be disappointed.
Instead, the discourse between supporters for President Bush and Democratic challenger John Kerry seems filled with distortions about what the other guy stands for.
For example, Bush said last week Kerry would "prefer the dictatorship of Saddam Hussein," reiterating his longstanding claim that the Democrat has repeatedly changed his stand on the war in Iraq. But despite his problems articulating any idea in less than 15 words, Kerry generally has said that Hussein should have been deposed by a wide coalition of countries, led by the United States, acting with a sure postwar plan, which Bush didn't do.
The Bush campaign's Web site also says Kerry's plan to end tax cuts for those earning more than $200,000 would penalize 900,000 small businesses. But that tally includes wealthy individuals who may not employ anyone _ like Bush and millionaire oil executive-turned-vice president Dick Cheney _ without noting the 32-million small businesses that would see no tax increase.
Even Bush's showcase "flip-flopper" claim against Kerry, that he voted for $87-billion in supplemental funds for operations in Iraq and Afghanistan last year and then voted against it, contains some spin. As the funding was under consideration, Kerry cosponsored a measure rolling back Bush's tax cuts to cover the $87-billion. When that was defeated, he voted against the $87-billion in protest _ a vote he must regret now that the Bush campaign has made it one of their most effective lines of attack.
Lacking the Republicans' skill at parsing words, Kerry and his Democratic supporters have advanced their own, tamer version of this tactic _ saying the Iraq war has already cost $200-billion, though the Office of Management and Budget cites a $120-billion total for fiscal year 2004 and the Center for American Progress has set the cost at $144-billion. Turns out Kerry's $200-billion total includes funds from the next fiscal year, funds used for Afghanistan and funds earmarked for protecting U.S. cities, according to FactCheck.org.
Similarly, Kerry's campaign Web site states Bush "enacted the largest premium hike in Medicare history," a 17.5 percent increase. But part of the increase was already mandated by a funding formula approved by Congress, including Sen. Kerry, back in 1997 during Democratic President Bill Clinton's administration.
And Kerry's claim that the Bush administration has lost 1.6-million jobs over its four-year term conveniently omits public sector job figures. The combined total job loss is closer to 913,000, a still significant figure.
In both Kerry and Bush's cases, such statements are a classic campaign maneuver _ tossing out factually true statements without the context necessary to fully understand them. Less than lying, its a form of dishonest misdirection that has risen to new heights this campaign season.
The candidates should hold themselves and their surrogates to a higher standard. As the debates progress and the campaign hits its home stretch, we expect Bush and Kerry to aggressively challenge each other's ideas and records.
But with a recent poll by the National Annenberg Election Survey showing people still don't know much about either candidate's positions, the tactic of distorting a rival's position to a cartoonish level only confuses voters and deepens cynicism about an already bruising electoral process.