Old Votes, cont’d

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Last week I wrote a blog post complaining that — shock and surprise — the presidential candidates have been running television ads that confuse their opponents’ positions on key issues with a specific technique: Instead of citing what their opponent plans, the ads cite old votes, an approach which distorts the actual debate. I was not arguing against using voting records in political debate–they matter, as do changes in position. I was just against using voting records to fool voters. But my post was flawed. I succeeded in accomplishing what I was condemning. I confused the political debate.

I cited three examples. In the first, McCain says that Obama wants to raise taxes on those who make $42,000, because he once voted for a non-binding budget resolution that assumed as much. This is true, but misleading to voters, since Obama now says he only wants to raise income taxes on those making more than four or five times as much. Along the same lines, Obama says McCain voted against tax policies that would support alternative energy programs like fuel cells and hybrids, even though McCain is running for president on a plan to provide tax incentives and subsidies to fuel cells and hybrids, among other alternative efforts. (It’s true that McCain has voted against a lot of subsidies for environmental efforts before, and more than Obama, which is relevant. But that does not excuse an ad that paints McCain as against all tax incentives. To illustrate how clumsy a measure voting records can be, consider the Obama claim that McCain’s vote against the 2005 Energy Bill was a vote against the environment. Democratic Sen. Barbara Boxer opposed the same bill because “it doesn’t do enough to reduce our dependence on foreign oil through the promotion of alternative forms of energy.”)

My third example was an Obama ad that criticizes McCain for his past votes in favor of plans that would divert some Social Security money to private accounts. I made clear that McCain has always supported such accounts, as he does today, but that Obama’s charge that he was “risking Social Security on the stock market” was misleading. In retrospect, I was trying to fit a round peg into a square hole.

In 2005, President Bush pushed to establish private accounts for younger workers that would give the option of investing a portion of their Social Security plan in the markets. Democrats successfully sunk the plan by adopting the same message that Obama took in the ad–arguing that any partial investment in the markets risked destroying the entire system by allowing a new risk of market losses. McCain supported the Bush plan then, and still speaks in favor of the private account idea in the future.

The current McCain plan differs from the old Bush plan in a major way: McCain does not actually have a plan. He has said on the campaign trail that he will tackle the problem of entitlements with a bipartisan effort along the lines of “what Ronald Reagan and Tip O’Neil did” in the early 1980s, the last time a Republican president and a Democratic Speaker of the House came together to shore up Social Security. McCain has quite intentionally decided, along with other candidates, that the specific fix he favors should be a product of bipartisan negotiation, not decree. Though McCain does support the private account plan, as proposed by Bush, we don’t know what his final plan would look like. (Some of his advisers suggest a private account program more modest than the Bush proposal.)

The distortion of the Obama ad is of a much more conventional type in politics than the specific technique — using old votes as red herrings — that I was describing in my post. By being vague, Obama was simply exaggerating the worst-case scenario of Bush private account plan, which is more a rule in politics than an exception. Since then, FactCheck.org has done a good job (here and here) explaining where Obama has overstepped the facts in making this argument. But that does not change the mistake I made.

The social security example did not belong where I put it in the post, and by placing it there I launched a confusing discussion about the issues–committing the same crime that I was chastising the candidates for committing.