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As Campaign Heats Up, Untruths Can Become Facts Before They're Undone

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By Jonathan Weisman
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, September 10, 2008

From the moment Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin declared that she had opposed the infamous "Bridge to Nowhere," critics, the news media and nonpartisan fact checkers have called it a fabrication or, at best, a half-truth. But yesterday in Lebanon, Ohio, and again in Lancaster, Pa., she crossed that bridge again.

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"I told Congress: 'Thanks but no thanks for that Bridge to Nowhere up in Alaska,' " Palin told the crowds at the "McCain Street USA" rallies. "If we wanted a bridge, we'll build it ourselves."

Palin's position on the bridge that would have linked Ketchikan to Gravina Island is one example of a candidate staying on message even when that message has been publicly discredited. Palin has continued to say she opposed a project she once campaigned for -- then killed later, only after support for it had collapsed in Congress.

As the presidential campaign moves into a final, heated stretch, untrue accusations and rumors have started to swirl at a pace so quick that they become regarded as fact before they can be disproved. A number of fabrications about Palin's policies and personal life, for instance, have circulated on the Internet since she joined the Republican ticket.

Palin and John McCain, the GOP presidential nominee, have been more aggressive in recent days in repeating what their opponents say are outright lies. Almost every day, for instance, McCain says rival Barack Obama would raise everyone's taxes, even though the Democrat's tax plan exempts families that earn less than $250,000.

Fed up, the Obama campaign broke a taboo on Monday and used the "L-word" of politics to say that the McCain campaign was lying about the Bridge to Nowhere.

Nevertheless, with McCain's standing in the polls surging, aides say he is not about to back down from statements he believes are fundamentally true, such as the anecdote about the bridge.

McCain spokesman Brian Rogers noted an Obama advertisement released yesterday that says, with no citation, that McCain's economic plan would take money away from public schools. "Absolutely, it's a lie," Rogers said.

Quoting the National Education Association, Obama aides said McCain's plan to freeze discretionary spending would cut funding for local education agencies, Head Start, teacher quality grants and special education.

John Feehery, a Republican strategist, said the campaign is entering a stage in which skirmishes over the facts are less important than the dominant themes that are forming voters' opinions of the candidates.

"The more the New York Times and The Washington Post go after Sarah Palin, the better off she is, because there's a bigger truth out there and the bigger truths are she's new, she's popular in Alaska and she is an insurgent," Feehery said. "As long as those are out there, these little facts don't really matter."

For now, there appears to be little political reason to back down. A Washington Post-ABC News poll taken Sept. 5 to Sept. 7 found that 51 percent of voters think Obama would raise their taxes, even though his plan would actually cut taxes for the overwhelming majority of Americans. Obama has proposed eliminating income taxes on seniors making less than $50,000 a year, but 41 percent of those seniors say their income taxes would go up in an Obama administration.


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