10/08/2012 01:50 pm ET Updated Dec 08, 2012

The Next President: The Best Liar?

TIME magazine has an interesting set of articles this week asking which of the presidential candidates, if any, "is telling the truth."

First off, what a sad commentary on the state of our politics -- of our country -- that such a question even needs to be asked.

But wait: It gets "better."

One of the articles in TIME discards any pretense of searching for honesty in our presidential candidates by asking, "Who Lies More?"

In TIME's "Who Lies More? Yet Another Contest," we find the results of an analysis of what each campaign claims are the other campaign's worst deceptions. The "verdicts" rendered by TIME on the campaigns' claims include "false," "untrue," "highly misleading," "misleading," "deceptive," "distortion," "speculative" and, lo-and-behold, one "true" verdict, although even this one lonely "true" is a qualified one: "The statement is true, but Obama shouldn't take sole credit for the trend."

There are almost as many shades of not telling the truth as there are shades of gray in that famous book -- not a great testament to our politics and politicians.

TIME's summary of its findings:

Compared with the Obama campaign's, the Romney operation's misstatements are frequently more brazen. But sometimes the most effective lie is the one that is closest to the truth, and Obama's team has often outdone Romney's in the dark art of subtle distortion. On both sides, the dishonesty is "about as bad as I've seen," says veteran journalist Brooks Jackson, director of

TIME's Alex Altman adds:

The lying game unfolds on many levels. Campaigns obfuscate, twist the truth and exaggerate. They exploit complexity. Most of all, they look for details -- real or unreal -- that validate our suspicions. There was no Obama "apology tour," but the canard flourished because some voters are wary about his sense of American exceptionalism. If you read the whole paragraph, the President's "You didn't build that" riff seems a lot more reasonable, but context fell victim to a perception that Obama disdains free enterprise. Bain was never the beneficiary of a taxpayer bailout, and yet 75 percent of Americans believe the contrary, partly because Democrats have cast Romney as the kind of plutocrat for whom the rules are rigged.

But back to the "contest."

TIME lists 10 claims made by each campaign, followed by TIME's "Reality" check and finally by its verdict as to the truthfulness of the campaign's claims.

Here are a couple of examples. To make it "fair," I picked instances where the verdict on both was "misleading":

Obama Campaign

"After a decade of decline, this country has created over half a million new manufacturing jobs."

Reality: The U.S. has lost about a million manufacturing jobs since 2009 but regained more than half that number in the comeback

Verdict: Without context, Obama's number is misleading

Romney Campaign

"Romney's plan? Reverse Obama's defense cuts, strengthen our military, create over 700,000 jobs for Florida."

Reality: The cuts are part of a 2011 debt-reduction deal agreed to by the White House and congressional Republicans, including Paul Ryan

Verdict: Blaming Obama alone for the cuts is misleading

I did some tabulating of the "verdicts" for each campaign and came up with the following disappointing results:

Obama Campaign Claims/Romney Campaign Claims

  • False 1 / 3
  • Untrue 3 / 1
  • Untrue and Deceptive 1/0
  • Highly Misleading 0/1
  • Misleading 1/5
  • Distortion 1/0
  • Speculative 1/0
  • "Relies on Gimmicks" 1/0
  • "Qualified True" 1/0

Setting aside the four verdicts that range from "distortion" to "qualified true," we are left with a whopping 16 verdicts (or 80 percent) falling between "misleading" and just plain "false." Not a very flattering statement about the two men running for the highest office in the land.

A large number of articles, analyses and fact-checking pieces have already been published on this issue since the Oct. 3 presidential debate.

However, neither the TIMEs' recent article nor any of the hundreds already published are expected to change many minds because, as TIME's Managing Editor, Richard Stengel, suggests, "Voters see candidates they support as truth tellers; they regard candidates they oppose as shadier."

As for the fact-checkers, the truth squads and the honest pundits trying to catch the liars and their lies, TIME suggests the analogy of the liars usually remaining one step ahead of the cops: "It's like the campaigns are driving 100 miles an hour on a highway with a posted speed limit of 60, but the patrol cars all have flats."

I would add to that their getting away with their lies, inaccuracies and deceptions just seems to embolden these "drivers" to drive even faster, to tell even bigger lies and to be even more in-your-face about it as they approach the finish line. Just witness the arrogant declaration by Neil Newhouse, a Romney pollster, "We're not going to let our campaign be dictated by fact-checkers."

In its cover story, TIME provides an insightful discussion of the reasons why politicians lie and, more important, why voters let them get away with it. It is a very worthwhile read, although in the conclusion TIME does not offer much hope for the truth winning out in the 2012 elections:

But when the final book is written on this campaign, one-sided deception will still have played a central role. As it stands, the very notions of fact and truth are employed in American politics as much to distort as to reveal. And until the voting public demands something else, not just from the politicians they oppose but also from the ones they support, there is little reason to suspect that will change.

I for one demand that the side making the most "false" statements and accusations -- of course that is always the "other side" -- ratchet up the rhetoric at least to the level of "slightly misleading."

It would also be nice if we left Big Bird out of all this.

In all seriousness, however, as long as we the voters continue to see our candidates as "truth tellers," no matter how big or bald-faced their lies are, what incentive do they -- or any politician -- have to tell the truth?