Tuesday, June 14, 2016

Honesty and Presidential Politics

I’ve seen claims among Republicans that Hillary Clinton is as dishonest as Donald Trump (or more), which they use as justification for voting for the blustery billionaire. And of course The Donald himself has labeled Clinton (along with most of his Republican challengers) as dishonest. With Trump’s legacy of bankrupt businesses, defrauded students, and stiffed subcontractors, it is stupefying that he has the gall to call anyone dishonest.
So, what’s the truth? Just for fun, I went to PolitiFact, the Pulitzer Prize–winning fact checker, to see how the candidates stack up in their campaign claims. PolitiFact rates candidate statements as True, Mostly True, Half True, Mostly False, False, and, for the real whoppers, Pants on Fire. Anyway, here are the results (so far). The first number in each category is the number of statements that qualified for that rating. The second number is the percentage of total statements falling in a particular category.
Donald Trump
  • True                           3               2%
  • Mostly True             11               7%
  • Half True                 24             15%
  • Mostly False            25             16%
  • False                        64             41%
  • Pants on Fire           30             19%
Hillary Clinton
  • True                         47             22%
  • Mostly True             58            28%
  • Half True                 45             22%
  • Mostly False            32             15%
  • False                        24             11%
  • Pants on Fire             3               1%
Bernie Sanders
  • True                         14             14%
  • Mostly True             38             38%
  • Half True                 19             19%
  • Mostly False            18             18%
  • False                        12             12%
  • Pants on Fire             0               0%
A couple of observations are in order here. The first is obvious. Trump, as everybody should know by now, is one of the most dishonest politicians to ever run for president of the United States. Tossing out the “half true” statements as somewhat neutral, we find that Trump is lying 76 percent of the time and is honest only 9 percent of the time. I’ll do the math for you. He lies 8.44 times as often as he tells the truth. This should surprise no one who has watched him over the course of his very public and self-promotional career. Given his distaste for truth, we really ought to wonder what his tax returns would reveal. I’m sure he has very good reasons for keeping them under wraps. His business practices are now coming to light, and it isn’t pretty.
By contrast and using the same metric, Clinton is honest 50 percent of the time and dishonest 27 percent of the time. Not as truthful as I would like, but not even in the same area code as Trump. If you look at just “Pants on Fire” statements, Trump has told 10 times as many whoppers as Clinton. The percentage of whoppers is even larger—Trump lights his pants on fire 19 times as frequently as Clinton ignites her pantsuits. The disparity is because Clinton has made more total statements, which I’ll get to in a minute.
I tossed Bernie “Feel the Bern” Sanders into the mix for comparison. He tells the truth 52 percent of the time and is dishonest 30 percent of the time, with no “Pants on Fire” ratings, perhaps because he tends to be a one-note symphony and that note is actually very easy to play. So, he tells the truth 2 percent more often than Clinton and lies 3 percent more often. Very close.
The second observation is the total number of statements rated for each candidate. Clinton’s total is 209. Trump rings in at a 157. And Bernie has been rated on 101. Why the big discrepancy? I can’t be sure, but I do have a theory. It may be because Clinton has been around longer and therefore has a longer track record. But these figures are supposed to be for the 2016 election cycle, so I don’t buy that explanation. My theory is that Clinton is a policy wonk and therefore understands the issues in greater detail and speaks on more of them than her two competitors. As I said, Sanders is somewhat a one-note symphony, so we shouldn’t be surprised that Clinton has made more than twice as many ratable statements. And Trump has also limited himself primarily to a few of his pet topics, which he bludgeons repeatedly and in new and imaginative ways.
       What about the three Republican candidates who lasted longest, though? How do they stack up? Well, Ted Cruz’s numbers look a lot like Trump’s. He was honest 22 percent of the time and dishonest 64 percent, with 7 percent “Pants on Fire.” Marco Rubio was a little better, with 36 percent truthful, 41 percent untruthful, and 3 percent “Pants on Fire.” John Kasich came out looking, well, not like a Republican, which may explain his low appeal factor. He was honest 53 percent of the time and dishonest 32 percent, with 5 percent “Pants on Fire.”
For another interesting comparison, let’s look at the two major candidates for president in 2012. President Obama, according to PolitiFact, was truthful 48 percent of the time and untruthful 26 percent of the time, with 2 percent “Pants on Fire.” Fairly similar to Clinton’s numbers this time around, but with more “half true” statements. Mitt Romney’s numbers might surprise some Mormons. He was honest (truthful or mostly so) only 31 percent of the time, and he was dishonest 42 percent of the time, with 9 percent “Pants on Fire” ratings (slightly worse than Rubio). In other words, not only was President Obama more truthful than Mitt Romney, but Romney was untruthful more frequently than he was truthful. He even garnered the “Lie of the Year” award in 2012 for a whopper about Jeep moving its production to China, a lie Romney repeated even after Jeep had set the record straight. As a Latter-day Saint, I was rather disappointed that a former stake president would be so cavalier with the truth.
I know what my Republican friends will say next. The fact-checkers are biased. But PolitiFact, as mentioned above, won a Pulitzer for its work, and it has been criticized by liberals, conservatives, and independents (which means it is probably doing a pretty good job). I don’t buy the bias argument. If we were talking about Fox News or MSNBC, I would, but not PolitiFact. I’ve read the explanations for many of their rulings. They do their homework and seem fair and evenhanded.
So what’s going on here? Perhaps it’s not the fact-checkers that are biased. Perhaps it’s the facts themselves. As Nobel Prize–winning economist and New York Times columnist Paul Krugman likes to remind us, the facts tend to have a liberal bias. This is fairly obvious in areas such as economics and global warming, but this generalization holds true for a surprising number of issues.
Of course Trump is in a category all his own (which is only appropriate), but as I’ve watched Republican candidates lay out their positions on various issues, it seems that in order to make sense of many of these stances, candidates have to be rather inventive (remember Romney’s infamous 47 percent?). To use economics as an example, any argument to support the virtues of supply-side economics is going to have to rely on a fair amount of fiction. The numbers simply don’t add up. Remember Paul Ryan’s magic asterisks in his balanced budget? And he’s supposed to be the brains of the GOP. Well, every single Republican candidate this election cycle (all sixteen or seventeen of them) pushed economic plans that the nonpartisan experts rated as somewhere between horrible and disastrous, with Trump taking the cake with a plan that would add $10.5 trillion to the debt, beyond the weight it would have gained anyway, over the next ten years. And the following decade would be even worse. And of course all the candidates touted the brilliance of their economic plans, hinting if not claiming outright that they could cut taxes on the wealthy, increase defense spending, and balance the budget at the same time. Magic asterisks on steroids.
This week Krugman has written a rather brutal column in which he wonders why none of Trump’s Republican challengers were able to take him down and asks whether Clinton will have the same problem. His explanation must be seriously considered. He suggests that none of the Republican challengers could expose Trump as a con man because they were each running a con of their own, just on a much smaller scale. And the party itself seems hell-bent on helping the crooks.
Writes Krugman, “Consider this: Even as the newspapers are filled with stories of defrauded students and stiffed contractors, Republicans in Congress are going all-out in efforts to repeal the so-called ‘fiduciary rule’ for retirement advisers, a new rule requiring that they serve the interests of their clients, and not receive kickbacks for steering them into bad investments. Paul Ryan, the speaker of the House, has even made repealing that rule part of his ‘anti-poverty plan.’ So the G.O.P. is in effect defending the right of the financial industry to mislead its customers, which makes it hard to attack the likes of Donald Trump.”
Krugman continues: “It’s interesting to note that Marco Rubio actually did try to make Trump University an issue, but he did it too late, after he had already made himself a laughingstock with his broken-record routine. . . . The point is that Mr. Rubio was just as much a con artist as Mr. Trump—just not as good at it, which is why, under pressure, he kept repeating the same memorized words. So he, like all the G.O.P. contenders, didn’t have what it would have taken to make Mr. Trump’s grifting an issue. . . .
“In the months ahead Republicans will claim that there are equivalent scandals on the Democratic side, but nothing they’ve managed to come up with rises remotely to the level of even one of the many Trump scams in the news. They’ll also claim that Mr. Trump doesn’t reflect their party’s values. But the truth is that in a very deep sense he does. And that’s why they couldn’t stop him.”
Some Republicans are shocked at where Trump is leading their party, while others are playing a game of moral Twister, trying to contort their values so that they can justify voting for Trump. But what they need to understand is that Trump is not an aberration. He is the predictable result of the path they have been pursuing for some time now. He has not only tapped into the latent racism and anger and bigotry in the extreme faction that has taken over the Republican Party, but he has also taken its inherent untruthfulness on many issues to new levels. Pardon the pun, but perhaps it is fitting that the GOP is the self-proclaimed con-servative party.

1 comment:

  1. The bias on PolitiFact is very subtle but in my experience very significant. It usually occurs in the margins between the ratings. And mostly between half true and mostly false. There is just so much room for spin and interpretation in deciding whether something is partially true or not. Often it matters how one frames the issue and which sources one prioritizes or gives credence to. I find that there is a systematic bias in favor of liberal politicians on that site which seriously skews the results. With that said, Trump truly is a category unto himself...