Truthiness in Action

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The advent of the Internet and reported blogs has brought a raft of “fact-checking” journalism, the sort where reporters like me try to explain exactly why Surrogate X or Party Leader Y is misrepresenting the record of Candidate Z. And this is all well and good. As I have often argued on this blog, it is important for democracies to be basically honest in their discourse. And the candidate or campaign that departs from this maxim should be punished.

But they all do it, anyway, and there is a good reason. It works. Lots of voters, unlike, say, the readers of this blog, are not paying very close attention. And a small or medium-sized exaggeration that (however deceptively) hints at a larger truth often pays big dividends. I bring this up because I was caught by a line in John Heilemann’s big new take out on John McCain in New York magazine. He quotes a Republican “party official” as saying the following about the way Republicans will attack Obama:

Our strategy will look a fair amount like the one that Hillary is running against him now. . . . It’ll build on two things: first, that he’s way too inexperienced to be commander-in-chief, which not only polls incredibly well but has the virtue of being true; and, second, that he’s way too liberal.

The key phrase there is “has the virtue of being true.” Never mind that it is a statement of opinion as much as fact, like saying that Led Zeppelin was the greatest rock band of all time. What’s important is that truth is accurately described here as unexpected icing on the distorted cake of a political discourse that polls well.

This came up last week as well. On Thursday, Howard Dean had a bunch of us reporters over to the DNC to reveal selective parts of a poll that showed (surprise!) that John McCain has lots of weaknesses. Among the questions that the DNC polled was whether people liked McCain less once they knew he had changed his position on closing the gun show loophole. Problem is, McCain has not flip-flopped on the gun show loophole. He still wants to close it. (UPDATE: But he has not always been vocal in his support of closing the loophole either. As noted in the comments below, McCain spoke out against any additional gun control in the wake of the Virginia Tech murders last year.)

When alerted that McCain still wants to close the loophole, Dean got defensive. “It’s not to our advantage to push stories that aren’t true,” he said, a statement that is probably not true. It would be accurate to say that it is not to the DNC’s advantage to push stories that are called out as being untrue.

Then Dean changed the topic and began talking about the use of McCain’s “100 years” comment, which the DNC had also focus grouped. (McCain said he would be open to having troops in Iraq for 100 years, not a war in Iraq for 100 years, as both Democratic candidates have suggested.) Dean said the distinctions didn’t matter.

The fact is that when you show swing voters “100 years” and “Iraq” in the same breath it doesn’t matter what John McCain’s qualifying statements were. It just killed him. It just killed him. So we are going to continue to say what John McCain said, that the troops should be in there as long as 100 years.

The fact-checkers be damned. Truthiness prevails again.