As the presidential campaign careens toward the finish line, John F. Kerry is denouncing deep Social Security cutbacks that President Bush has not proposed. And Bush is slamming "government-run" health care that Kerry has refused to embrace.
Kerry says the president could bring back a military draft, despite Bush's vociferous denials. Bush suggests Kerry regards terrorism as a "nuisance" when the senator merely said his goal is to reduce it to that level.
In their stump speeches and attack ads, the candidates have moved beyond assailing -- critics would say distorting -- their opponents' positions and are setting up straw men that they enthusiastically knock down. They are, some analysts say, campaigning against caricatures.
"In the specifics, you can get away with just about anything," said Shanto Iyengar, chairman of Stanford University's communications department. "Ninety-five percent of the American public knows very little about the details. The only people who care about it are journalists and pundits. In the real world, people don't have time."
Exaggerations are as old as television advertising itself. The particularly bitter tone of the candidates' ads in 2004 -- amplified by even tougher language by some independent "527" groups -- has been building for months.
From March through August, Bush tried to bury Kerry under a blizzard of attack ads, some of them based on misleading charges, while the Massachusetts senator aired mainly positive ads. Even after turning negative in September, Kerry has pushed the factual envelope less often than the president -- until recently.
Beginning in 1992, a few news organizations began running fact-checking articles on presidential ads, which for a time provided a modest check on questionable claims. That fall, for example, journalists touched off a front-page controversy when they said President George H.W. Bush was relying on disputed assumptions with an ad charging that Bill Clinton would raise taxes on some middle-class individuals by more than $2,000 a year.
But these efforts have been overshadowed by a dramatic increase in presidential ad spending, along with bolder advertising claims in an increasingly raucous political culture. Television networks often replay these attack ads with only periodic attempts at verifying them.
"The standards in this political season for accuracy are lower than they have ever been, and the penalty for fabrication is lower than it's ever been," said Democratic media consultant Mandy Grunwald. But she said news accounts that portray both sides as equally culpable miss the mark. "I think the Bush folks in government and the campaign make stuff up more than anyone I've ever seen and have largely paid no penalty for it," she said, in part because "the volume of their advertising is so much greater than the volume of journalism."
Republican media consultant Don Sipple questioned whether the closing barrage will move the meter for either candidate.
"They're stuck in this 30-second attack culture, and I think it's a wash," he said, because voters "tend to discount new fear-mongering this late in a campaign." As for Kerry's charges against Bush, Sipple said: "To some extent, he's gotten an easier ride because of the predisposition of the press to want a horse race."
A Kerry ad, based on a private comment Bush is reported to have made on wanting to privatize Social Security, says: "Now Bush has a plan that cuts Social Security benefits by 30 to 45 percent." But the president, while favoring allowing younger workers to put part of their benefits in private accounts, has never put forth a plan -- and has vowed that any change would not affect current retirees.
The Social Security ad is one of a number that Kerry's campaign has released to generate news coverage but has not purchased time to broadcast.
Kerry said last week that there is a "great potential" that Bush will reinstate the draft. The president has repeatedly denied this, and Bush spokesman Steve Schmidt, in a common campaign refrain, said the charge shows Kerry "will do or say anything to get elected."
Bush insists on referring to Kerry's health care plan as "government-run," despite the fact that it relies on the current system of private health insurance. And when a Bush ad says the Kerry proposal would bring "rationing, less access, fewer choices, long waits," it is referring to the existing Medicaid program, which under the Kerry plan would offer coverage to some who now lack insurance.
One Bush ad says Kerry "voted for education reform and now opposes it." But Kerry voted for the No Child Left Behind Act and wants to improve it and boost what he says is the president's inadequate funding of the law.
When Kerry told the New York Times that he wanted to reduce terrorism to a nuisance like gambling and prostitution, another Bush ad cited his remark, adding: "Terrorism -- a nuisance? How can Kerry protect us when he doesn't understand the threat?" But the senator never said terrorism is a nuisance now.
The selection of these closing themes is no accident. In the final weeks of the 2000 campaign, candidate Bush charged in a commercial: "Al Gore's prescription plan forces seniors into a government-run HMO." A Republican National Committee ad said: "Why does Al Gore say one thing when the truth is another? . . . Nonpartisan analysis confirms George Bush's plan sets aside $2.4 trillion to strengthen Social Security." Bush often declared that Gore would "say anything" to get elected.
The then-vice president, for his part, aired a final-week ad in which an expert said Bush's proposal "simply doesn't add up and would undermine Social Security." Sipple dismissed Kerry's 2004 version, saying: "The Social Security fear card has been played so many times in so many election cycles that it's been somewhat discounted."
The president's assault on Kerry as weak on defense also has a familiar ring. Bush's father, running for reelection in 1992, ran an ad criticizing Bill Clinton on the Persian Gulf War and for avoiding the draft. Another ad used footage of the Gulf War and an attempted Soviet coup, saying: "In a world where we're just one unknown dictator away from the next major crisis, who do you most trust to be sitting in this chair? President Bush, commander in chief."
The most effective advertising plays to people's preconceptions about the parties, Stanford's Iyengar said.
"Each side tries to come up with a message that fits the stereotype," he said.