The claim game

We like politicians. Really, we do. Most elected officials are what they claim to be: public servants. Many work harder than their constituents know or give them credit for. Now, of course, there are bad apples in all baskets, and politics is no exception. Our experience suggests, though, that the sleaze quotient among politicians — those who are in the game, in other words, mainly to line their own pocket or for other nefarious purposes — is about the same as you find in other lines of work.

Even the most high-minded public officials, however, may succumb to a peculiar weakness around election time, when their jobs are on the line. We're talking about the very human tendency to emphasize the positive and disguise the negative. Actually, we're talking about bending the truth — "spin" — as well as blatant lies.

With the fall election campaign about to take off, Marylanders should on guard for dubious claims from politicians of all varieties. Some will be so laughable, you'd think candidates would be ashamed to trot them out. One of our favorites is the promise to simultaneously cut taxes, boost spending and plug a $1.5 billion budget hole (We're eagerly awaiting the details of Republican gubernatorial candidate Robert L. Ehrlich Jr.'s plan. No fuzzy math, please).

A brand-new pledge that some politicians aren't resisting this season is repealing the sweeping health care overhaul that Congress passed earlier this year. First District Republican congressional candidate Andy Harris is among those who've seized on that idea, which is part of his party's national strategy for taking Congress back. Republican Rep. Eric Cantor of Virginia — the likely replacement for Democratic Rep. Steny Hoyer of Maryland as majority leader, if Republicans regain control — is vowing to bring repeal legislation to the House floor. In quieter moments, he's acknowledged that repeal can't happen as long as Barack Obama is in office to veto it, (assuming that a repeal measure were to reach his desk, which it won't).

Thanks to technology and the new-media explosion, a growing part of the communication between politicians and the electorate takes place semi-privately and is difficult to track. There are, for example, those robo phone calls to your house, featuring the recorded voices of a candidate or, more likely, their supporters or opponents, delivering claims of varying honesty straight into your ear. Then there are targeted direct-mail hit pieces, which have a strange habit of landing in your mailbox right before voting begins — since last-minute charges are often the toughest to counter.

E-mail and other electronic communications deliver political messages at low cost and, thanks to sophisticated software, with exquisite targeting, tailored to an individual voter's occupation, personal interests, political leanings, income level and spending habits. The possibilities are almost literally endless.

Still, the most powerful and effective delivery tool remains the TV or radio ad, which is why candidates spend so much on them. Well-paid consultants tailor the wording with cunning effectiveness, subtly pushing emotional buttons that polling and focus group research show will produce the desired result — which is, obviously, a vote for or against a candidate or ballot measure.

We've commented on this page, already, about the misleading effort to convince Anne Arundel County voters that if they reject a slots parlor at Arundel Mills mall, the facility will be located at Laurel Park racetrack. As The Baltimore Sun's reporters cover the 2010 campaign, they are attempting to shine a light on other examples of twisting the truth. For example, a recent attack ad by Gregg Bernstein, a Democratic candidate for Baltimore state's attorney, unethically stole the credibility of this newspaper to back up his claim that the incumbent, Patricia C. Jessamy, was putting violent offenders back on the street. The actual source of that supposed "fact" was an unscientific sampling of callers to Ron Smith's radio show, which Mr. Smith alluded to in an opinion column on the op-ed page. It was not the judgment of The Sun's editorial page, nor was it a fact uncovered by The Sun's reporters.

As that example suggests, the 2010 campaign will likely feature many questionable claims and cheap ploys to sway voters. It will be difficult, if not impossible, to fact-check them all. One rule of thumb might be that, in elections, as in day-to-day-life, if a politician's claim sounds too good (or bad) to be true, it should probably be taken with a healthy dose of skepticism. In other words, let the voter beware.

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