In President Bush’s aggressive attack on Sen. John F. Kerry’s 20-year Senate record during their debate Friday, the facts may have taken the worst beating of all. Kerry, for his part, also managed to shade the truth with some of his statements.
Bush accused Kerry of casting 98 votes to raise taxes, but that total was padded. And he misrepresented the senator’s position on middle-class tax cuts.
According to an analysis by FactCheck.org, a nonpartisan website based at the University of Pennsylvania Annenberg Public Policy Center, 43 of the 98 votes were on budget measures that established revenue targets, and did not actually legislate tax increases. The Bush total also includes several votes regarding a single tax bill.
The president specifically accused Kerry of voting against middle-class tax cuts, including an increased child credit, a reduced marriage penalty and a 10% tax bracket for lower income people. All three breaks were extended in a law recently signed by Bush. Kerry was not in the Senate the day that bill passed because he was on the campaign trail.
Kerry did vote against the 2001 tax bill that initially established those breaks -- but not because he opposed those middle class tax cuts but because he favored a smaller overall tax package than Bush did.
Kerry, for his part, said Friday he had showed how he would pay for each of his campaign promises, but that is not entirely accurate.
He has argued that the cost of his education and health initiatives would be covered by repealing tax cuts for families earning more than $200,000 a year, but some analysts say he is underestimating the cost of his healthcare plan.
Also, his campaign has advocated paying for some initiatives with two policies that many analysts say are not likely to produce serious savings: cutting bureaucratic waste and closing corporate tax loopholes. It is true, however, that Kerry has scaled back the price tag of some of his early campaign initiatives in deference to deficit reduction.
On three occasions during the debate, Bush cited National Journal magazine as having named Kerry as the most liberal U.S. senator, once calling the designation an “award.” However, using the authoritative magazine’s analysis to reach such a conclusion is “misleading -- or just plain wrong,” editor Charles Green said.
The magazine’s annual rating of senators -- which are not “awards” -- listed Kerry the most liberal based on votes cast in 2003, but also said the Massachusetts senator missed nearly half of the votes used to compile the rating.
Green said that by examining votes over a lifetime, Kerry is the 11th most liberal, behind such senators as Paul S. Sarbanes of Maryland, Edward M. Kennedy of Massachusetts and Barbara Boxer of California.
The magazine also said Kerry’s running mate, Sen. John Edwards of North Carolina, was ranked the fourth most liberal senator in 2003 after missing many votes, but he is the 27th most liberal senator based on votes over his career.
On domestic issues in particular, Bush and Kerry seemed to be describing different universes.
More than inaccurate information, however, it was their selective use of information -- and in some cases the lack of context -- that tested the boundaries of objective reality.
On the issue of jobs, Bush said the tax cuts he pushed through Congress have helped generate 1.9 million new jobs.
“We’re on the move,” he said.
Not so fast, Kerry retorted. Bush has presided over the loss of 1.6 million payroll positions, he said, making him “the first president in 72 years to lose jobs.”
Actually, both candidates were twisting the available statistics to their advantage, in the process creating an impression of the economy that was exaggerated, if not distorted. The job-creation figure cited by Bush applies to the last 13 months only, and includes about 100,000 positions that may not be added to the official employment count compiled by the Labor Department.
The job loss figure cited by Kerry reflects private sector employment only. When government jobs are included, the net job loss under Bush has been 585,000. And it is likely that he will end his term with a loss -- as Kerry claimed.
“The poor people watching the debate think they’re both lying because those two things can’t both be true. Or they believe their candidate and assume the other candidate is lying,” said Kathleen Hall Jamieson, director of the Annenberg Public Policy Center. “The last thing they’re likely to assume is that they’re each selectively using the available evidence accurately, which is the reality.”
On other issues, both foreign and domestic, the two candidates continued the pattern of distortions and omissions evident during their first debate and the subsequent confrontation between Vice President Dick Cheney and Edwards, Kerry’s running mate.
Twice, Bush said that 75% of Al Qaeda’s total membership had been “brought to justice,” meaning captured or killed. In fact, neither Pentagon officials nor independent analysts believe the Bush administration has achieved such results against Al Qaeda. A more accurate figure, they say, is the one Bush used during his State of the Union speech this year, when he said two thirds of Al Qaeda’s “known leaders” had been captured or killed.
Bush also said United Nations weapons inspections “weren’t working” in Iraq. “That’s what the Duelfer report said,” the president said.
The 1,000-plus page report issued Wednesday by Charles A. Duelfer, head of the CIA Iraq Survey Group, suggested that years of intrusive U.N. weapons inspections and strict U.N. trade and arms embargoes worked extremely well at disarming Iraq.
The report concluded that Iraqi President Saddam Hussein destroyed all his chemical and biological weapons, and his nuclear bomb program, in 1991 and didn’t revive them in the 12 years before the 2003 war.
Both Bush and Kerry left out key details when discussing aspects of the USA Patriot Act, a law passed by Congress to crack down on domestic terrorism in the wake of the Sept. 11 attacks.
Bush said that “every action being taken against terrorists requires a court order.” But the level of proof that FBI agents must make in court is minimal. In most investigations, they need only show that the searches or surveillance sought were “relevant” to an anti-terrorism investigation -- as opposed to a stiffer “probable cause” standard.
Meanwhile, Kerry’s reference to “sneak and peek” search warrants ignored the fact that they have been used in criminal investigations for many years, long before the Patriot Act came along.
The tools are delayed notification search warrants, where a court authorizes a secret search, but does not require that the target be given notice until after the search is completed.
Bush defended his environmental credentials by saying the air had gotten cleaner since he became president. Air quality has indeed improved since Bush took office -- as it generally has since 1970. But that is largely a result of environmental regulations that were passed before he became president, and that have grown steadily tougher with time.
Bush’s most ambitious air pollution measure, the Clear Skies Initiative, has not been approved by Congress. Environmental groups and many state air pollution officials have criticized it as a weakening of the existing Clean Air Act.
The director of the Environmental Protection Agency’s office of regulatory enforcement, Eric Schaeffer, resigned on Feb. 27 2002, citing frustration with administration actions that Schaeffer said were harming his ability to settle lawsuits with large air polluters.
Bush committed similar omissions on a key health issue. Asked why his administration has prevented the re-importation of less expensive prescription drugs from Canada, Bush said: “I haven’t yet. I just want to make sure they are safe.”
Strictly speaking, he is still open to the possibility of relaxing restrictions on importing drugs, because he has appointed a task force to look into the subject and report to him by the end of the year.
But his administration has been a powerful force in blocking legislation to allow drug re-importation. Bush and Health and Human Services Secretary Tommy G. Thompson have expressed strong doubts that it could be allowed in a way that guarantees the drugs measure up to U.S. safety standards.
Bush also was on a slippery factual slope when he referred to the U.S. Constitution and slavery.
Answering a question about the kind of Supreme Court justices he would pick, the president cited an 1857 Supreme Court ruling denying citizenship to Dred Scott, a slave who was seeking his freedom in the Missouri courts. He called it an example of judges making decisions on the basis of their personal opinions, and not following the Constitution and laws of the nation.
“Judges years ago said that the Constitution allowed slavery because of personal property rights,” said Bush. “That’s a personal opinion; that’s not what the Constitution says.”
The 13th Amendment abolishing slavery was not ratified until Dec. 18, 1865, after the defeat of the Confederacy in the Civil War, and eight years after the Dred Scott decision.
Times staff writers Miguel Bustillo, Ricardo Alonso-Zaldivar, Bob Drogin, Mark Mazzetti, Greg Miller, Paul Richter, Richard B. Schmitt and Peter Wallsten and Washington Bureau librarian Robin Cochran contributed to this report.