WASHINGTON — 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.