Rarely are they blatantly false. Political lies rely on misrepresentation of facts and convenient omissions that make their target look better - or worse - than it really is.
So convincing are today's politicians and their minions it's not even clear they always realize when they're bending facts past the breaking point.
"The problem is we never know whether they believe what they're saying or not," Brendan Nyhan, a Dartmouth political scientist and author ofAll the President's Spin, told USA Today.
At least three fact-checking organizations - the Annenberg Public Policy Center's FactCheck.org, the Washington Post's Fact Checker column and the Tampa Bay Times' PolitiFact - do their best to point out the almost daily deceptions.
But politicians know that few citizens ever visit such Websites. And that's what politicians and their surrogates are counting on.
"I don't think [the fact checkers] make a whit's worth of difference," Rick Tyler, a senior adviser to Winning Our Future, a super PAC that supports Newt Gingrich, told USA Today. "Millions more people will see [our] ad than will ever see the political fact check."
That doesn't deter the fact checkers, however. The constant stream of political lies has been keeping them very busy lately.
Here are five issues that have been particularly prone to political lies over the past several months. You'll probably hear variations of these all the way through the 2012 election.
- Obamacare: Brooks Jackson, head of FactCheck.org, says the 2010 Affordable Care Act is "the most lied about legislation I have seen in all my years in Washington." And it's not just Republicans twisting the truth on this one, but Democrats, too (although in the opposite direction).
On the Republican side, presidential candidate Rick Santorum has on several occasions claimed that the law will result in 100% of Americans dependent on some form of government help. PolitiFact begs to differ: "It's likely that the new health care law will increase the number of Americans receiving benefits from the federal government, but it's highly unlikely that it will push the percentage beyond 60% -- far from the 100% Santorum claims. We rate his claim False."
- Oil Reserves: With gasoline prices soaring, both sides have been eager to lie about oil. To support his contention that the United States needs alternatives to imported oil, President Obama has pointed out on multiple occasions that the nation uses 20% of the world's oil output but has just 2% of the world's oil reserves. The Washington Post's Fact Checker notes that while both facts are true, they bear no relation to each other. Oil reserves and oil production are two very different things.
- The Automaker Bailout: Expect to hear lots of political lies on this topic. During one of the countless Republican debates, presidential candidate Mitt Romney said that President Obama "gave" the auto companies to the United Autoworkers of America (UAW) union. While the bailout deal did give the UAW's health care trust some company stock, PolitiFact pointed out, that hardly qualifies as "giving" the automakers to the union. Furthermore, the trust is independently run. PolitiFact ruled the statement "False."
- Alternative Energy Policies: Political lies about oil reserves are just a sliver of the energy-related falsehoods you'll hear this year. President Obama recently said that algae-based biofuel could replace up to 17% of U.S. oil imports. Not so fast, countered the Post's Fact Checker. It found that algae-based biofuel would not be cost-competitive with gasoline until oil hits $800 a barrel - more than seven times the current price.
- Taxes: Money issues always elicit overblown rhetoric. The political lies on this topic from the past year alone could probably fill a book.
President Obama has often spoken of his desire to raise taxes on millionaires and billionaires. Republicans usually counter with the argument that such taxes would unfairly target small business owners, who they claim make up more than 50% of this group. Turns out the Treasury Department did a study last fall that showed the Republican claims to be greatly exaggerated. Only 1.4% of all small business owners even fall into the tax category of millionaire. And of that group, only 13% derive at least 25% of their gross income from their small business (GOP critics use a broader definition that includes any small business income, no matter how small.). So practically speaking, only a tiny group of small business owners would be affected by any new "millionaire tax."
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