IN THE CLOSING days of an election, candidates tend to become increasingly unmoored from the facts, and the 2004 presidential race is proving no exception. Rather than lamenting that seemingly immutable political reality, though, we pause today to praise two entities that are pushing the other way. One, the Congressional Budget Office, is a longtime Washington institution; the other, FactCheck.org, is a new player on the scene. They may not have kept the political debate honest -- who could? -- but in very different ways each has helped make the campaign less dishonest than it might have been.
The nonpartisan CBO -- not, as Sens. John F. Kerry and John Edwards mistakenly called it in the debates, "bipartisan" -- isn't supposed to inject itself into campaigns, and it hasn't. But its analysis on everything from tax cuts to Social Security reform to health care costs has been invaluable in assessing the credibility of campaign claims. Its director, Douglas Holtz-Eakin, previously worked in the Bush White House, but he hasn't shied away from assessments that undercut the administration's claims.
For example, the CBO's analysis of medical malpractice claims found that, contrary to President Bush's assertions, limiting malpractice lawsuits isn't a big piece of the solution to rising health care costs: Even strict limits would reduce costs by less than 1 percent. Presented with that conclusion, Mr. Bush responded during the debates that the agency failed to take into account higher costs resulting from doctors' ordering unnecessary tests. But the CBO shoots that one down too, saying it "believes that savings from reducing defensive medicine would be very small."
The nonpartisan FactCheck.org -- not, as Vice President Cheney mistakenly called it, FactCheck.com -- enters the political fray in a way that the CBO, appropriately, does not. A project of the University of Pennsylvania's Annenberg Public Policy Center run by veteran journalist Brooks Jackson, FactCheck.org repeatedly has exposed misstatements and distortions. "Kerry Exaggerates Cost of War in Iraq," one assessment found. "Bush Mischaracterizes Kerry's Health Plan," said another. News organizations can, and do, engage in this kind of scrutiny. But FactCheck.org provides a resource for media outlets without the staff or energy to do this level of solid analysis, and it can state its findings starkly: Last week, for example, it labeled a Bush ad on Kerry and taxes "an outright falsehood" because the ad counted votes against proposed tax cuts as votes to "raise taxes."
Not surprisingly, both groups have themselves been misquoted by the campaigns. Perhaps the biggest such distortion came when Mr. Kerry cited the CBO to allege that the Bush Social Security plan would cut benefits by as much as 45 percent. Mr. Bush hasn't endorsed a specific plan. Of the plan the CBO studied, the Kerry campaign cherry-picked the most dramatic numbers; the 45 percent benefit cut would apply to those who are now 4 years old, at most. And the cuts aren't the direct result of private accounts but of a change in the way benefits are indexed for inflation. Among those who called the campaign on this: FactCheck.org.