Both Campaigns Distorting Facts on Money Matters

Democrat Barack Obama is misleading in describing how McCain's health-care proposal would affect Americans.
Democrat Barack Obama is misleading in describing how McCain's health-care proposal would affect Americans. (Spencer Platt - Getty Images)
  Enlarge Photo    
By Michael Dobbs
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, October 16, 2008

John McCain has asserted that his Democratic rival plans to raise taxes on anyone making more than $42,000 a year and will force all Americans into a "government-run" health-care system. Barack Obama has accused the GOP presidential candidate of planning "the largest middle-class tax increase in history" and gambling with the Social Security earnings of millions of American seniors.

All these allegations, a sampling of charges traded back and forth on the campaign trail and in the three presidential debates over the past few weeks, are false.

During the final presidential debate last night, both candidates made their share of factual errors and distorted their rivals' positions. Obama again was misleading in describing the effects of McCain's health-care proposal, while McCain again recycled the false assertion that Obama had voted to raise taxes on people making $42,000 a year.

Some of the sharpest back-and-forth over economic issues concerned the taxes that an Ohio plumber named Joe Wurzelbacher stands to pay under a possible Obama administration. McCain was correct in stating that Joe the Plumber will end up paying a higher marginal tax rate under the Obama plan if his small business makes more than $250,000 a year. But McCain was wrong to say that Obama is planning to fine Joe the Plumber and other small-business owners if they fail to provide health insurance for their employees.

As the U.S. economy has unraveled, both McCain and Obama have been stepping up their efforts to convince voters that disaster lies ahead if their opponent ends up in the White House. At the same time, economists say, both candidates have played down the sacrifices that will be necessary to put the nation back on a path to fiscal responsibility and balanced budgets.

While there is no evidence that today's candidates are any more untruthful than their predecessors, the explosion of media outlets and the rise of the Internet have made it difficult for fact-checkers to keep track of the fibs peddled by the rival political camps. Exaggerations, misstatements and outright falsehoods crop up daily in a cascade of campaign spin, from major speeches to political blogs to video releases targeted at specific markets.

"It's like drinking from a fire hose," said Brooks Jackson, director of the Web site, who has been truth-squadding presidential campaigns since 1991.

Many of the misleading attacks reflect standard partisan positions, Jackson said, with Republicans attacking Democrats for an alleged propensity to raise taxes and with Democrats criticizing Republicans for ignoring more vulnerable Americans. He noted that McCain had "systematically misrepresented Obama's tax proposals over a long period of time," prompting Obama to turn around and do "the same thing" with the McCain health-care plan.

"The big McCain deception about Obama is that he will tax everybody," said Kathleen Hall Jamieson, a professor of communication at the University of Pennsylvania. "But there is nothing in the Obama plan that can reasonably be described as higher taxes on people who make less than $250,000 a year."

McCain and his surrogates have repeatedly accused the senator from Illinois of voting to raise taxes on people making $42,000 a year, and suggested that this is a key part of the Democrat's campaign platform. The charge stems from the Democrat's vote in favor of nonbinding resolutions that assume, for budgeting purposes, that the Bush tax cuts will expire in 2011, as scheduled. Obama has promised to extend the Bush tax cuts for all but the highest-income groups.

Similarly, there is little to support McCain's charge that Obama would "force families into a government-run health-care system where a bureaucrat stands between you and your doctor." The Obama plan bears little resemblance to the socialized national health systems in Britain and some other European countries and is based instead on expanding the current U.S. system of privately backed health insurance.

The Obama campaign, meanwhile, has repeatedly mischaracterized the McCain health-care plan as "the largest middle-class tax increase in history," in the phrase of a recent Obama television ad. While it is true that McCain wants to tax employer-provided health insurance for the first time, he is also promising a tax credit of between $2,500 and $5,000 to encourage Americans to buy their own health insurance. According to the nonpartisan Tax Policy Center, the tax credit will more than offset the higher tax for most Americans over the next decade.

CONTINUED     1        >

© 2008 The Washington Post Company