Political truths in eye of the beholder

President Barack Obama and former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney.
AP Photo
President Barack Obama and former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney.
AP Photo


(CBS News) Nasty negative attack ads, hundreds of millions of dollars raised, a barrage of trips, photo-ops, shaking hands and a disregard for the truth. The 2012 presidential election is shaping up like most past contests. It seems the people most enthused about this election are the non-partisan fact checkers whose job it is to assign "Pinocchios" or "Pants on Fire" labels to the campaigns and their messages. They are staying very busy.

For the first time in 20 years, both candidates have experience as government executives and a real record of seemingly indisputable facts about their record. Romney backers will be quick to point out that 1992 was the last time an incumbent president lost re-election, a president who, like President Obama, was dealing with a struggling economy. And, like Mitt Romney, the challenger that year was a governor with a record.

Back then, Bill Clinton said former President George H.W. Bush "has given a warped twist to the old adage, 'the best defense is a good offense.' In Bush's lexicon, 'the most aggressive defense is a misleading offense.'" This came as the Bush campaign attacked Clinton for doubling the debt in Arkansas, increasing taxes and overseeing a state that was "the 45th worst in which to work" and was "the 45th worst for children."

Today, it's Romney versus the president. Romney's record as a businessman has already been examined, twisted, stretched, and sugarcoated and now it's his record as governor of Massachusetts that has come under the similar wash, rinse and spin cycle.

Two campaigns, two definitions of Romney's role at Bain

"One of the worst economic records in the country," says a new TV ad this week from Mr. Obama's campaign. "When Mitt Romney was governor, Massachusetts lost 40,000 manufacturing jobs - A rate twice the national average" says the ad. "And fell to forty-seventh in job creation. Fourth from the bottom," adds the announcer.

Compare that to the Romney campaign's new ad: "As Governor of Massachusetts, Mitt Romney had the best jobs record in a decade," says the announcer. "Romney reduced unemployment to just 4.7 percent."

That's the "he said, he said" version of the Romney record on jobs, and what about on the budget?

The Romney ad: "He balanced every budget without raising taxes."

The Obama ad: "He cut taxes for millionaires like himself while raising them on the middle class and left the state two point six billion deeper in debt."

How is it possible for two ads to have such totally opposite interpretations of facts?

Well, what's true in politics is that there is no truth.

"The secret language of statistics, so appealing in a fact-minded culture, is employed to sensationalize, inflate, confuse and oversimplify," wrote Darrell Huff in 1954's "How to Lie with Statistics." Huff suggested that readers and viewers give "statistical material, the facts and figures in newspapers and books, magazines and advertising a very sharp second look before accepting any of them."

And what proves to be true in the end is that the truth is in the eyes of the beholder.

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    Robert Hendin is senior producer for "Face the Nation" and a CBS News senior political producer.