July 6, 2012

In nearly every election, voters, the news media — and the candidates themselves — clamor for more honesty from politicians. “I don’t know if you know to trust what either side is saying or . . . are they just saying it to get elected?” a participant told pollster Peter Hart at a recent focus-group gathering of swing voters in Colorado.

But straightforwardness doesn’t make for the sexiest of stump speeches. Remember Walter Mondale’s 1984 pledge to raise taxes? “Let’s tell the truth. . . . Mr. Reagan will raise taxes, and so will I. He won’t tell you. I just did.”

Mondale lost in a landslide.

The problem was not that he told the truth, but that Republican ads twisted his words, alleging that, rather than using the new revenue to pay down the deficit, the Democrat would squander it on a social spending spree.

So can an honest candidate, who doesn’t distort his opponents’ records or rhetoric, win the presidency?

Yes. Now more than ever, with a public highly anxious about the economy and worn down after years of promises that things would get better, the time is ripe for a candid candidate.

To win over the public honestly in 2012, a presidential aspirant would tell us things we need to hear but don’t want to. Such a candidate might acknowledge that the United States will be more affected by — than have and effect on — the dramas unfolding in the Middle East and the European Union. An honest candidate would need to specify how he or she would address the more than $1 trillion budget deficit, which might include defense cuts; eliminating some of the George W. Bush-era tax cuts; taxing employer-provided health-care coverage; slowing the growth rate of Social Security and Medicare; phasing in a higher eligibility age for Social Security; eliminating the payroll-tax limit; and getting rid of the interest deduction for some home mortgages. President Obama and Republican rival Mitt Romney aren’t avoiding this discussion, per se, but they’re not offering specific plans for how they’d address the impending crisis, either.

Being honest doesn’t stop at self-representation; a candidate should be able to secure support without misrepresenting his opponent. This may sound difficult, but it has been done before. John F. Kennedy in 1960 and Ronald Reagan in 1980 treated their rivals’ positions and records fairly, forthrightly forecast their governing approaches and hewed to the facts. With the exception of the Democratic attack on the alleged missile gap, which Kennedy may have believed existed, neither the 1960 Democratic nominee nor his Republican counterpart, Richard M. Nixon, distorted his or his opponent’s plans. The Reagan campaign’s attacks on President Jimmy Carter’s record were also factual and fair.

And as political analyst Mark Shields observed: “There was nobody who was in a non-comatose state in 1980 who did not know what Ronald Reagan intended to do as president.”

By comparison, the record this year is dismal. The Obama campaign misused a recent Washington Post article to label Romney as an “outsourcer in chief.” And the National Republican Congressional Committee is suggesting that Obama’s health-care law taxes “heart attacks, sick puppies and even new babies,” when instead it includes excise taxes on some medical devices. Neither candidate wants to take credit for the job losses during his first year in office, as governor or president, but blames his opponent for the losses on his watch.

Ballooning debt and a sputtering economy are making people more receptive to candid talk about what might help. Contrary to the notion that the public will never support higher income taxes or changes in social programs, polls show that a majority of Americans support removing the income limit on the Social Security taxes, increasing the taxes paid by people who make more than $250,000 a year and reducing military spending.

The drumbeat of gloomy data helps clear the way for tough choices. The Congressional Budget Office has warned that there will be another recession if $8 trillion in automatic spending cuts and tax increases take effect in January.

So far, however, neither Obama nor Romney is being candid about the trade-offs needed to address the debt crisis. For example, Romney has said he would limit some deductions and exemptions to lower tax rates, but has not revealed which would go. And when Obama called on Congress “to take the money we’re no longer spending at war, use half of it to pay down our debt, and use the other half to rebuild America,” he wasn’t talking about money we’re “saving,” but calling for a reallocation of money we are already borrowing.

Voters may rally behind shared sacrifice if they thought the country’s future were at stake. After all, during World War II, people accepted tax increases and rationing of butter, meat and gasoline. Similarly, voters reelected most of those lawmakers who in 1983 increased Social Security taxes and the age of eligibility for the program. To make that case, Reagan argued that, without reform, Social Security was unsustainable because “benefits were increased far beyond the taxes and wages that were supposed to support them.” The changes to the program, he said “will allow Social Security to age as gracefully as all of us hope to do ourselves, without becoming an overwhelming burden on generations still to come.”

Obama and Romney have not spoken such hard truths, but they should.

When voters are anxious about the well-being of future generations, they also are more likely to tune in to longer forms of political communication — such as debates and other televised presentations — that are conducive to honestly explaining more complex topics. For example, in 1992, an audience larger than that for a National League playoff game viewed Ross Perot’s first half-hour talk about deficit reduction. And Barack Obama’s half-hour televised forecast in October 2008 of his presidency drew numbers that topped those for the last game of the World Series. What 1992, 2008 and 2012 have in common is an electorate that is fearful about the future and focused on the economy. If the networks can’t find a way to provide Saturday or Sunday night airtime each week, and the candidates are unwilling to shoulder the costs, perhaps the super PACs supporting them could redirect some of the money otherwise planned for attack-saturated deception.

The rewards for candor increase when the Sunday talk-show interviews and fact-checking journalists hold candidates accountable for their promises and their misleading messages. Some candidates have dialed back their claims as a result.

After The Washington Post, the Associated Press, PolitiFact, FactCheck.org (which I co-founded) and other major news organizations discredited Romney’s claim to have created more than 100,000 jobs while at Bain Capital, he corrected the record, pointing out that “four of the companies that we invested in — they weren’t businesses I ran, but we invested in — ended up today having some 120,000 jobs. Some of the businesses we invested in weren’t successful and lost jobs.”

When they can lure candidates into interviews, the Sunday talk-show anchors reliably tie rhetoric to reality and promise to performance. Obama has been interviewed by each of the Sunday anchors, albeit not recently. But in September 2009, ABC’s George Stephanopoulos persisted while Obama denied that the individual insurance mandate in his health-care legislation was a tax, even though, as Stephanopoulos noted, it forces “people to spend money, fining you if you don’t.”

“How is that not a tax?” Stephanopoulos asked. At issue was whether Obama had violated his 2008 campaign pledge not to raise taxes on the middle class. Recently the Supreme Court agreed with Stephanopoulos.

With similar tenacity, last month Bob Schieffer on CBS’s “Face the Nation” asked Romney about his plan to lower income-tax rates: “When are you going to tell us where you’re going to get the revenue? Which of the deductions are you going to be willing to eliminate?” When the candidate answered that “we’ll go through that process with Congress,” viewers could surmise that he considered a candid answer politically costly and therefore chose to be evasive.

Up against the conditions that encourage honesty — dire economic news and media accountability — are messaging machines that campaigns can’t directly control: super PACs and other third-party groups. From the 1988 Willie Horton ad that depicted Democrat Michael Dukakis as soft on crime to this year’s ads by super PACs, messages by outside groups are more misleading and malicious than those distributed by candidates. This year’s gems included the allegation that Republican Newt Gingrich supported China’s one-child policy when the legislation in question banned using the money to fund abortions, and the charge that Romney left Massachusetts more than $1 billion in debt when he was governor. That figure was a projected shortfall that never materialized.

Broadcast stations can reject these clear-cut deceptions by insisting on accuracy, as Ohio stations did in October by declining to run a third-party ad implying that a great-grandmother had endorsed a ballot proposition she actually opposed. Yet in a recent study I directed, only 13 percent of 260 station managers queried reported refusing to air a third-party ad in the past year.

The possibility that one candidate will substantially outspend the other (as Obama did in 2008 and Romney may do this year), and the likelihood that super PACs and other messengers will displace substance with slurs du jour, magnifies the need for the media to police deception and hold candidates accountable.

The victor’s reward for treating his opponent fairly and being faithful to the facts could be a majority that trusts its president and his administration — and awards him an enhanced capacity to govern. He might even earn a place in the history books for shepherding the country through a challenging time.

And that’s a prize more enduring than four years in the Oval Office.

kjamieson@asc.upenn.edu

Kathleen Hall Jamieson is the director of the University of Pennsylvania’s Annenberg Public Policy Center, home of FactCheck.org and its sister site, FlackCheck.org. She is a co-author, with Kate Kenski and Bruce W. Hardy, of “The Obama Victory: How Media, Money and Message Shaped the 2008 Election.”

Read more from Outlook:

A challenge to Obama and Romney: Deliver one truthful campaign speech

Do campaigns really change voters’ minds?

When honesty hasn’t been a winning policy

The biggest flubs in campaign history

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