BILL MOYERS: The presidential debates are upon us and many people are describing them as Mitt Romney’s last best chance to establish himself as a serious contender worthy of the White House. It’s happened before. John Kennedy, Ronald Reagan George W. Bush, all bounced higher in the polls after credible debate performances and went on to win the White House.
Whatever the outcome, most agree it’s the debates that will give us our best opportunity to evaluate these candidates, sort out their positions and separate truth from fiction. Not a moment too soon. According to a new survey from the Annenberg Public Policy Center at the University of Pennsylvania, “with a little over a month to go before Election Day, the public has a lot to learn about the 2012 Presidential Race.” Among its findings: Only 51 percent know the Romney-Ryan plan would preserve traditional Medicare for those 55 and older and retain it as an option for those now younger than that.
Only about half knew that Mitt Romney would keep the Bush tax cuts in place. Fewer than half knew that Romney and not Obama had promised to increase defense spending;
Only 23 percent were aware that payroll taxes had decreased during Obama’s term in office. Only slightly more than half knew that Paul Ryan is the Republican vice presidential nominee. The director of the Annenberg Center, Kathleen Hall Jamieson, our master media decoder is back with us. Welcome.
KATHLEEN HALL JAMIESON: Thank you.
BILL MOYERS: So who's responsible for the widespread unawareness or ignorance that you report in your survey? Is it the candidate, the media, or the voter?
KATHLEEN HALL JAMIESON: It's all three. And fortunately, we have the opportunity with presidential debates to do something that reliably increases knowledge. We've been studying presidential debates for a long time as a scholarly community. And to our surprise, we consistently find that those who watch debates, regardless of the level of knowledge they come in with, come out with more accurate knowledge as a general group.
And they do this because those who haven't paid a great deal of attention have a lot to learn. Those of us who've paid a lot of attention still missed things. The news may have covered something one day and we weren't paying a whole lot of attention. Or maybe we got one candidates’ position and we missed the other candidate. In the clash of the candidates, in the clash of ideas offered us by the candidates, we have a chance to make direct comparisons. And when the moderator does a good job on common definitions in a way that clarifies distinctions and also clarifies similarities. One of the really important things about debates that people don't notice is that if the two candidates agree on something, first we rarely talk about it. And hence, we miss the translation between campaigning and governance. Because these candidates tend to act on what they tell you they're going to act on, or at least they tend to try.
BILL MOYERS: What are you going to be looking for in these debates?
KATHLEEN HALL JAMIESON: What I'm going to be looking for are clarifications of major, on major issues. And so I'm going to ask, "Does the public after watching the debates understand the differences in philosophy of government? Do they understand that Governor Romney wants government spending at a lower level of G.D.P. than does President Obama?"
BILL MOYERS: Gross Domestic Product.
KATHLEEN HALL JAMIESON: Gross Domestic Product. Governor Romney wants to bring government spending per G.D.P. to G.D.P. down to 20 percent. And he has a theory that says that if you do that and you do the other things that he's going to do with the tax code that he is going to get economic growth. And so the second thing I'm listening for is, "What is their solution to the situation we're in right now with the economy? How are they going to solve the deficit problem and also increase job creation?"
And I'd like to hear that explained clearly, because they have two very different philosophies. And they see the role of government as very different. Basically, Governor Romney would like to see a lot less government in that process than would President Obama. I think that’s a second area where we should expect to see clarification. Third, I think that if the debates do their job, we're going to be able to answer the question, "What are the sacrifices either one is going to ask us to make?"
BILL MOYERS: Such as reforming Social Security, Medicare, higher taxes, lower taxes?
KATHLEEN HALL JAMIESON: Yes. And on the table are all sorts of things that many people value a great deal and we may not be able to afford anymore. So should we have deductibility for second home mortgages? Should we have deductibility for high-cost homes? Should we have health insurance coverage provided by employers continue to be deductible? If so, for whom, should it be for all? And should we raise the age of entitlement, if so, to what level?" When someone says that about social programs, I want to also hear the answer to the question, "What are you doing with military spending? And how do you justify the tradeoff? We've gotta get the revenue someplace. Where are you willing to cut? And if not, why not, when you're putting really valued things on the table." And simply saying that the wealthy are going to pay more doesn't solve the problem. The wealthy are going to need to pay more, but so is what most people define as the middleclass. And there are going to be cuts across the board, including the military, I think, in order to make this work. I'd like to hear it now, not after the election.
BILL MOYERS: You clearly are placing a lot of faith in the debates.
KATHLEEN HALL JAMIESON: The reason for having confidence the debates will increase knowledge is because they have in the past. The question is how much knowledge can we get from the debates? The reason one has to place confidence in it is that it's all that we've got left. If the public is going to learn, it's not going to learn from advertising. It has some capacity to learn from news. But there isn't a high enough ongoing attention to news to really drive up the level of knowledge we need. What we need from the candidates in the debates is not simply greater adherence to facticity about their own records and their opponents records, but also more disclosure about what they're actually going to do in governance.
BILL MOYERS: But will the candidates be trying to tell the truth? Or will they be trying to persuade the audience to vote for them, even if they have to twist or avoid the truth to do so?
KATHLEEN HALL JAMIESON: The candidates, I think, need to take the risk that the candidate who is willing to tell us hard truths could pick up a part of the electorate that is otherwise disaffected. And also some of those who are still undecided. And if one of the candidates, preferably both, would tell us what the tradeoffs are, what the sacrifices are, and say, "If you elect me, this is what we're going to do because we need to do this for the wellbeing of the country and of future generations," I think that candidate not only could win on those grounds, but also could gain the license to govern without risking that we immediately try to throw his party out of office.
I'm afraid this year that the fact that the candidates are ducking the tough rhetoric means that they're going to have much, much more trouble governing than they otherwise would. And I wish they would have the courage to simply bite the bullet and tell us the truth. If we're not grown up enough as an electorate to accept it, then we deserve the consequence, which is governance we didn't anticipate, sacrifices we didn't anticipate, and a sense of betrayal that the campaign didn't tell us anything that mattered about what our lives would be like in the coming years.
BILL MOYERS: There are instances in which the public is fairly knowledgeable. For example, you report that 89 percent know that the national unemployment rate has been over 8 percent for more than a year. This is the one that's surprised me. You report that 70 percent know that the Supreme Court held that the fine in the Affordable Care Act, also known as Obamacare, was constitutional since it is a tax, a very fine point that I thought would have been lost on a lot of people. How do you explain this degree of knowledge ability on some of these very important issues?
KATHLEEN HALL JAMIESON: In all of these cases, these things affect people's lives. Why the high attention to the Supreme Court ruling? And that's a very complex question, you're certainly right about that. Why the high level of attention to unemployment rate? It affects your life. And as a result, on those things that really matter to you, you're more likely to get it right if there is sustained news attention. And in none of those cases was there a partisan spin that overrode the news coverage. And so if you're trying to hunker down at your little partisan enclave and say, "No, I want to be in denial," there wasn't a partisan take that was there ready to dismiss the fact.
BILL MOYERS: Think about this for a moment. Here we are one month from the election, what's the most effective ad that you've seen that is believable?
KATHLEEN HALL JAMIESON: Let me give you an example for each side. The ad that is being run by the Republicans and there are multiple forms of it, that shows voters who are real people who are looking at the camera and saying that they voted for him. This is Obama, this is President Obama. And they're really disappointed.
FEMALE VOTER: In 2008, I voted for Barack Obama.
FEMALE VOTER: He was new. He had new ideas.
FEMALE VOTER: I think that now we’ve given Obama a fair chance. And I don’t think he’s able to do what we need him to do.
MALE VOTER: The President is doing a mediocre job, and the economy in my opinion is still the same as it was four years ago.
KATHLEEN HALL JAMIESON: What's effective about that is that what Governor Romney has to do is persuade people who voted for President Obama that they shouldn't vote for him again. If the attack is strong on his competence or strong on some facet of his leadership, the danger is people hunker down and defend their original vote. This situates the voter where the voter is right now, It says, "We license you to reject the incumbent." It's an ad that says, "Let's make this a referendum.
BILL MOYERS: What about the pro-Obama ad? What's the most effective ad they've run that is believable?
KATHLEEN HALL JAMIESON: I think the most effective ad that they have is on the air right now. It's capturing a small segment of the statement that Governor Romney made behind closed doors, not realized he was being taped, about the 47 percent. And it puts pictures of people who fall into that 47 percent on the screen. And basically suggests that Governor Romney doesn't want to represent you and you and you.
NARRATOR: Mitt Romney attacked 47 percent of Americans who pay no income tax, including veterans, elderly, the disabled.
MITT ROMNEY: My job is not to worry about those people.
NARRATOR: Doesn’t the president have to worry about everyone?
KATHLEEN HALL JAMIESON: What makes it effective is Governor Romney's voice. And the fact that when you listen to the extended statement, you can make a plausible case that the tone was dismissive. And so the ad reinforces something that people are inclined to believe about a Republican. And they do it by showing you Governor Romney saying something. And now a second factor comes into play. He's said it in private. And when we're judging messages, we have these shortcuts that we just come to trust. Politicians say things in public, I really want to know what they say in private. I'd like to know if they're the same thing. So we get something that supposedly was said in private to wealthy donors, we're more likely to think that it represents what the candidate actually thinks. Remember how Barack Obama was hurt by the statement about clinging to guns and religion, same dynamic. What does he believe behind closed doors about you? And that's the other piece of that that's effective. You can identify with those people on the screen. And you can say even if you do pay federal income taxes, that was really an attack about people like me. I think that's the most effective ad the Obama campaign has run.
BILL MOYERS: Do you think voters expect honesty from the candidates?
KATHLEEN HALL JAMIESON: We know that voters tell us that they don't like attack in politics. And they don't like deception in politics. We know that attack can move voters. And we know that deception can move voters who aren't informed and and anchored in the facts. But we also know that voters value honesty and we know it through indirect evidence. We know that when the Republicans successfully lodge the charge in 2000 that Al Gore wasn't trustworthy, and they did it in part with an ad that played on his statement about playing a role in the creation of the internet, that it hurt perceptions of his trustworthiness and honesty and that it factored in vote decisions.
We know that when we look at the dimensions that come into a vote choice, perceived honesty and trustworthiness are always in that vote choice. And so the question is, "How do you translate your persona into the perception that you are being accurate about the facts?" And here I think each candidate has vulnerabilities going into the debates. Because the debates can expose the fact that the candidates have been engaging in some deceptive communication in their ads.
The Republicans ad that suggests that President Obama has gutted the work requirement in welfare is deceptive. The fact checkers have said that it's deceptive. And it's a clear-cut deception. The Obama campaign has been advertising saying that Governor Romney opposes abortion even in cases of rape or incest. Again, the fact checkers have said, "No, that is not his position."
BILL MOYERS: But were those deceptive ads, one by Obama, one by Romney, nonetheless effective?
KATHLEEN HALL JAMIESON: They are effective unless you know that they're deceptive. And so—
BILL MOYERS: But more people know that they, more people see the ads than know that they're deceptive, than see your fact check.
KATHLEEN HALL JAMIESON: That's correct. But let's look at where we are right now. And then ask me that question again after the debates. What the debates have a potential to do is inform a broad swath of the electorate that it's been misled.
Now imagine that you care about this issue and you feel that you've been misled on the issue. That potentially is consequential in your assessment of those candidates. So debates become the opportunity to catch up with the deceptions. And go back to the primary debates. You saw the best journalists we have holding candidates accountable.
And you saw higher levels of accuracy as a result. Newt Gingrich was claiming that for four consecutive years as speaker he balanced the budget. Well, he'd only been speaker for two of the years that his budget was balanced. He backed of that claim. Debates have the ability to push back on claims that are deceptive and increase the level of accuracy.
BILL MOYERS: Almost you persuade me. But as you know, there's so much talk about how we're in a time of post-truth politics. One of Mitt Romney's own campaign pollsters said that they're not going to let their campaign be dictated by fact checkers. And although he didn't include, call you by name, he includes you, Miss Jamieson, and your colleagues at FactCheck.org.
KATHLEEN HALL JAMIESON: And the Romney campaign, when it posts the big deceptions of the Obama campaign, cites the fact checkers in many of those. And importantly, we know something about fact checking actually mattering. So first we know that campaigns have adjusted their claims. The Obama campaign was saying that Romney had outsourced.
BARACK OBAMA: I am Barack Obama and I approve this message.
NARRATOR: Running for Governor, Mitt Romney campaigned as a job creator.
MITT ROMNEY: I know how jobs are created.
NARRATOR: But as a corporate raider, he shipped jobs to China and Mexico.
KATHLEEN HALL JAMIESON: The fact checkers pushed back on that claim and the Obama campaign changed the ad to the next version saying, "His firm had outsourced."
BILL MOYERS: So fact checking is a protection against this deception?
KATHLEEN HALL JAMIESON: Fact checking is a way of not eliminating the deceptive inferences, but increasing the likelihood that you have more of these statements accurate.
BILL MOYERS: You know, there are some journalists who disagree with you. The media critic Jack Shafer said in a column that quote, "Of course politicians and their campaigns lie. Of course they continue to lie even when called out. If you think otherwise, then they might have been speaking to you. You're looking for truth in all the wrong places." Is that realistic or cynical or both?
KATHLEEN HALL JAMIESON: If you say that candidates are willing to lie in order to be elected, are you saying that when they govern as president, we have just licensed them to lie to us? Because we have said as a public that we think that lying is acceptable and we're willing to be duped. I worry when campaigns assume that deception is just part of normal operating procedure. I wonder whether the candidates actually understand what the knowable is and are in touch with it. I wonder when they're confronted with the need to look at evidence in order to make a judgment whether they're actually going to do that or they're just going to listen to their pollsters and ask the question, "What can I sell?" instead of "What's the right thing to do, given the available, knowable facts on the ground."
If we give up on the idea that campaigns need to adhere to a standard of facticity and we cynically say, "They all lie all the time. And we just have to live with it." We may as well give up on journalism, which is the custodian of the knowable and accountability, which is journalisms primary function. Journalists are supposed to insist, as best they can, that candidates adhere to some sense of the real, as they try to define the problems and offer solutions.
BILL MOYERS: But here's what I think Jack Shafer would say in response to that, because he has written that, "Voters crave rhetoric that stirs their un-fact-checked hearts, as long as the deception is honest, pointing in the direction they want to go, voters are all right with it."
KATHLEEN HALL JAMIESON: See, I wouldn't call that deception honest. But we do know that people crave reinforcement of things they already believe. They're highly uncritical about statements, about their candidate and made by their candidate. They're highly critical about statements about the other, when the other candidates make them on the other side. So we know that. That's part of the way humans process.
But we also know that we're capable of being analytic. We're capable of being dispassionate. We're really good at doing it when we get into a situation in which, for example, we need good medical information. I mean, there are times in which we really do try to adhere to the best available evidence. Tell somebody they've got a diagnosis of cancer and watch how their respect for fact and existing academic research in the medical community rises dramatically.
So it's true that voters do want their predispositions reinforced. But it should also be true that one can campaign in a way that's consistent with those dispositions and a way that's honorable. We had real trouble as a fact-checking community finding anything wrong with Bill Clinton's speech at the convention. Bill Clinton's speech made a compelling case for Barack Obama, a much stronger case than Barack Obama or his campaign has made for his reelection.
And Bill Clinton's speech, with very few, very minor exceptions, passed the toughest of the fact checking tests. When he went on Jon Stewart we found out why. On Jon Stewart, he said he worked on that for three or four weeks. And he consulted policy experts, because he wanted to make sure he got it right.
Now was that a compelling case, Democrats? I think you think it was. Was it factual? Yes, it was. If you are going to be prepared to govern competently, can't you make the case for your election based on a factually defensible argument? And if you can't, why should we vote for you, even if you share our ideology, candidate?
BILL MOYERS: When you took the results of this survey and sat alone with them in your study there in Philadelphia, and you looked at this gap, gulf, were you proud of the American people or not?
KATHLEEN HALL JAMIESON: When you look at the finding about the Supreme Court that shows an understanding of the constitutional issue involved in the ruling that said that that fine was a tax, what was called a fine was a tax, I'm proud of the American people. They understand something very complex. When I look at whether they don't understand where the candidates are on the issues, because the other side has been advertising and talking in speeches and in news in ways that are deceptive, I'm not ashamed of the American people, I'm ashamed of the candidates. And I'm ashamed of journalists for not holding the candidates so accountable that that level of knowledge was pushed up regardless of what the candidates were saying.
BILL MOYERS: Kathleen Hall Jamieson, as usual, it's been helpful. Thank you very much. And we'll see you in a couple of weeks.