Yesterday, someone called “Lewis McBatman” tweeted:
Joe Biden fact-raped Paul Ryan last week. About time someone did.
Now, there are all sorts of things wrong with the imagery and metaphor in that tweet. But one thing I find problematic is the insistence that what was better about Biden’s performance was that it was factual.
This is a very common standard, and one that is utterly pervasive in the media. FactCheck.org labels every candidate’s statement with an evaluation of its veracity. Immediately after last night’s debate, CNN ran an extended fact-check of each claim made during the debate. And Candy Crowley–bless her heart–tried to explain to her colleagues and the nation that, while Mitt Romney had been factually incorrect on the question of whether President Obama had called the Libya killings an “act of terror” or not, Romney had nevertheless been right “in the main” and just used “the wrong word.” Immediately after each debate, and after any “gotcha” moment on the campaign trail, the opposing campaign distributes far and wide claims about their opponent’s truthfulness, but not about the values, ideals, and approaches he champions.
There is certainly no shortage of truth-stretching and outright lying going on in the campaigns, so I grudgingly acknowledge the relevance of asking, simply, whether each candidate is speaking accurately. But I think the obsession with fact checking prevents us from paying attention to the most important questions: differences in values, analysis, and leadership style that make the decision a legitimate democratic moment. While I’m no longer as optimistic as I was a few weeks ago, it’s still the case that the two campaigns offer a marked difference in these qualities: competing theories of economic growth, competing (rhetorical, if not so pronounced in policy) approaches to collective vis-a-vis individual success, competing ways of handling leadership. Consider, for example, the difference between these two snippets from the candidates’ convention acceptance speeches:
President Obama promised to begin to slow the rise of the oceans and heal the planet. MY promise…is to help you and your family.
We, the people, recognize that we have responsibilities as well as rights; that our destinies are bound together; that a freedom which asks only, what’s in it for me, a freedom without a commitment to others, a freedom without love or charity or duty or patriotism, is unworthy of our founding ideals, and those who died in their defense.
As citizens, we understand that America is not about what can be done for us. It’s about what can be done by us, together, through the hard and frustrating but necessary work of self-government. That’s what we believe.
These are competing visions of the character of the American public and the appropriate style of leadership for it. None of these can be adjudicated on the basis of a fact-check. The obsession with fact checking is obscuring the most important elements of the decision we’re making.