Call me a cockeyed optimist, but I’m not despairing about democracy in the Citizens United era. Not yet, anyway. I just don’t think most Americans will decide their votes based on short TV spots financed by a group of shadowy donors.
I give most voters more credit than that. Yes, there’s more nonsense in the air than ever before. Yet, in the Internet age, it’s also relatively easy to sort the truth from fiction.
How? After all, no one has time to check it all himself. Simple: By benefiting from the efforts of folks who do it full time.
Here’s a brief guide to the sites and organizations I find most useful when trying to make sense of campaign claims.
My first three stops when a new claim becomes a flash point in the campaign are FactCheck.org, a project of the Annenberg Public Policy Center at the University of Pennsylvania; PolitiFact.com, the Pulitzer Prize-winning website that’s a creation of the Tampa Bay Times; and the Washington Post’s “Fact Checker.”
Let’s say you’ve seen the Romney campaign ad claiming that the Obama administration is ending the work requirement for welfare recipients and are curious to know whether it’s true. By the time you finish FactCheck.org’s thorough analysis, you’ll likely agree with its matter-of-fact conclusion: “A Mitt Romney TV ad claims the Obama administration has adopted ‘a plan to gut welfare reform by dropping work requirements.’ The plan does neither of those things.” The judgment is punchier over at feistier PolitiFact.com: “That’s a drastic distortion of the planned changes to Temporary Assistance to Needy Families. . . The ad’s claim is not accurate.” The rating? “Pants on Fire!”
Or say you’re trying to decide whether it’s really fair to blame Romney and Bain for the cancer death of a woman whose husband lost his job, and thus his family’s health coverage, when a Bain-owned steel mill went bankrupt. A couple of minutes on these sites, and you learn, among other things, that the steelworker’s wife didn’t become ill “a short time” after the plant closed, as he asserts in an attack ad by Priorities USA Action, a pro-Obama super PAC. She actually fell ill and died five years later. Further, she had her own employer-sponsored health insurance for a year or two after her husband lost that job.
“False,” judges PolitiFact.com. “Misleading on several counts,” says FactCheck.org. “On just every level, this ad stretches the bounds of common sense and decency,” declares Washington Post Fact Checker Glenn Kessler, who awards it (the maximum) four Pinocchios.
Between those three sites, you can usually find a well-researched, even-handed discussion of the charges being made on the campaign trail. But what if you’re interested in a detailed discussion of the candidates’ plans and what they’ll mean for taxpayers? There’s no better place to check in from time to time than the Tax Policy Center
A joint enterprise of the Urban Institute and the Brookings Institution, the center’s nonpartisan experts produce well-regarded studies. When the center recently called Romney’s tax cut plan unworkable, the Romney campaign tried to discredit the center by calling it “a liberal group.” Problem: One of the authors had once worked for President George H.W. Bush. Second problem: The Romney team had previously cited the center’s critique of former Republican rival Rick Perry’s fiscal plan, labeling it “objective, third-party analysis,” which was actually, well, an objective third-party analysis.
Another highly informative site — and organization — is the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities. One may disagree with some of the center’s progressive priorities, but its detailed fiscal analyses — considered careful and reliable by other fiscal experts — are a valuable guide both to the real drivers of the short and long-term federal deficits and to the effects of various fiscal policy proposals. Two other sites that produce timely and informative analyses and information are the bipartisan Committee for a Responsible Federal Budgetand the nonpartisan Concord Coalition, the budgetary watchdog started by former senators Paul Tsongas, a Democrat, and Warren Rudman, a Republican.
This is hardly an exhaustive list. But it’s one that will help voters sort through the swirling blizzard of charge and countercharge — a blizzard that will only grow more intense as the campaign progresses.