"Obama? I wouldn't vote for that socialite."
That's what a man in Pennsylvania said when I was making phone calls for Obama during the last presidential election campaign.
If you don't know the difference between a socialite and socialist, you are a prime candidate for the U.S. Republican debate team.
Although we are in the midst of the great information explosion of the 21st century, the Republican debates and discourse flourish in a fact-free zone.
Recall Michele Bachmann's charge that Obama would be spending $200 million a day on a trip to India -- a bizarre conclusion announced publicly to Anderson Cooper on CNN. And she was off the factual mark on other points about Social Security, jobs, debt and her charge that the HPV vaccine might cause mental retardation.
Then there was Rick Perry, with his frightening declaration that Social Security is a Ponzi scheme -- when in fact there is not a shred of similarity between Social Security and a Ponzi scheme. Social Security is funded with real money -- taxes on wage-earners and employers. It's a pay-as-you-go system that can only pay out what it collects in real money. If there is a shortfall in the future after the $2.6 trillion Trust Fund runs out, Social Security benefits would have to be reduced by the amount of the shortfall -- unless the law is changed. In contrast, a Ponzi scheme is built of smoke and mirrors -- illusions. When the smoke clears the illusion disappears and the investors lose everything.
Herman Cain, another candidate who steamrolled ahead with popular support, could also have benefitted from a quick Google search, or even a glance at Wikipedia. But why bother, when the facts might challenge your ideology? Cain loves Jesus and loves conservative ideology -- so Jesus, he concluded, must have been a conservative and, therefore, Jesus was convicted by a liberal court. Nice try, Herman, with your convoluted logic -- but this claim won't hold up in any court. The Sanhedrin that convicted Jesus was a conservative court. It was dominated at that time by the conservative Saducees, who represented the elite and wealthy class. The Pharisees, who more closely represented the masses, were in the minority on the court. A minor impediment to Cain's campaign, especially in light of his other knowledge shortfalls -- including his shocking ignorance about Libya -- but it's an important example of ideology trumping reality in Republican rhetoric.
The remaining leading candidates, Romney, Santorum and Gingrich have also been cited for spewing false facts.
To undermine Obama's record on defense Mitt Romney claimed, in the Florida debate, that the U.S. navy is now smaller than at any time since the start of World War 1, when, according to data from the Defense Department's Naval History and Heritage Command, there are more ships today than during George W. Bush's last term. Newt Gingrich took credit for balancing federal budgets that were voted on after he left Congress. These are just a few Newt and Mitt manufactured "facts."
What about Rick Santorum? A New York Times headline reads: "Dutch Puzzled by Santorum's False Claim of Forced Euthanasia." Was Santorum pandering to his right-to-life followers? Or did he cast aside the truth in order to undermine the Netherlands' program of universal health care? Either way, he made an outrageous charge without bothering to check facts.
Santorum has also charged that rolling blackouts have been caused by Obama's defective energy policy, when it's been shown that those blackouts are often planned to prevent more serious blackouts and others could just as well be caused by squirrels.
Ironically, Ron Paul, the Republican candidate with the least support among Republicans, is rated as having the best record for truth on the Truth-O-Meter report card.
How can we short-circuit the "fact" frauds? I thought of a solution when I recalled Ross Perot's independent run for president in 1992 and 1996. I didn't like much of Ross Perot's politics but I did respect his style of going to the chalk board, listing basic facts on charts and building his arguments and discussions based on the facts as he saw them. If you wanted to dispute him you would have to challenge his clearly parsed information -- a method that offered a foundation for a legitimate and intelligent debate.
Thinking about Ross Perot made me wonder, "What if instead of using news anchors and political commentators to moderate debates we enlisted elementary school teachers? I imagined my fifth-grade teacher, Mrs. Morrow, managing a debate:
"Now Herman, go to the chalk board and write the word 'Sanhedrin.' Show the class that you can spell it correctly. Then tell us what the Sanhedrin is, how many judges were on it and their political affiliations." After that, 'Now, what did you say about Jesus?'"
Then Mrs. Morrow would send Ricky Perry to write down the definition of a Ponzi scheme, with examples -- perhaps including the nefarious activities of Mr. Charles Ponzi himself. She would follow by asking him to show how his definition related to Social Security -- point by point.
Mrs. Morrow wouldn't stop there. "Michele," she would say, "Please look up the cost of hotels, airfare, meals and other expenses of a trip to India...." "Mitt, write on the chalk board the number of Navy ships in 2007, during the Bush Administration, and the source of your information. Now list the number of ships in 2012." "Rick, name the patients who have been forcibly euthanized by the Dutch and the source of your information. " "Newt, write on the board the date that you left office. Now list the dates of the budgets that...." And so on.
You may think that my parody is disrespectful of candidates for the highest office in the land. But consider commentator Richard Schiffman's view: "Since the candidates are acting like children, let's treat them that way." Socialites, socialists -- and even conservatives -- might very well agree. Will it be truth or consequences?
Follow Bernard Starr on Twitter: www.twitter.com/starrprobe