McCain's So-Called Lies About Obama and Sex Ed

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I don't know how many times I've heard from mainstream media reporters, bloggers, and even that McCain's ad about Obama's support for sex ed for kindergarteners is an outright lie. According to the Obama campaign, the bill was intended to give information on how to avoid sexual predators and how to recognize inappropriate touching. The Obama line is that McCain is lying by making it out to be comprehensive sex ed. I sat and listened to a colleague Friday night launching into a diatribe about how evil McCain is for lying about this. I'd been hearing this, but I hadn't actually looked at it very carefully myself.

The bill is not mainly about sexual predators, which don't even come up until over halfway through the bill. It is about contraception and prevention of sexually transmitted diseases. It mandates discussion of abstinence. How do you talk about contraception, methods of preventing STDs, and abstaining from sex without talking about sex in a way that's much more significant than simply coaching kids to recognize inappropriate touching?

Now the McCain ad does wrongly say that this is Obama's only legislative accomplishment. He wasn't a sponsor of this, and there are a couple bills that he does have his name on as a sponsor. The bill also does say, as Obama has been pointing out, that parents could opt their kids out and that it would be age-appropriate sex ed. However, it's clear from the bill that what's mandated will be a pretty comprehensive curriculum, and it's hard for me to see how that would be age-appropriate for kindergarteners by my standards of what's age-appropriate, which makes such a condition pretty inadequate. Simply specifying that it be age-appropriate accomplishes little more than allowing people who think the bill's mandate is age-appropriate to do what the bill mandates. It doesn't seem to me that it's at all inaccurate to call it comprehensive sex ed for kindergarteners, certainly not to the level of the outright lie that so many people, including the supposedly-neutral mainstream media and the supposedly non-partisan, are talking about. What they keep saying is that the bill doesn't require the very thing that its language seems to me to plainly require.

Byron York has an excellent piece that summarizes a lot of this but also includes statements by the sponsors of the bill at the time and one statement by the only sponsor of the bill who would even talk with him. From what he can gather, it does seem that inappropriate touching, while one concern, was not one of the major reasons for the bill. It's possible that Obama was voting for the bill because he thought one tiny element of it was a good idea and that he disagreed with the rest of it. If you accept his story and his claim that he doesn't support what the bill turns out to mandate, then that would have to be what he was doing. So why would he vote for the bill, then, if it turns out to be mainly intended to do something he disagrees with? I was accepting the Obama line on this simply because so many people were repeating it, including But it turns out, on closer examination, that the major claim made in the ad is pretty much true, and it's Obama's story about it that seems to be false.


What says, if I understand it (and I didn't read the text of the bill) is that the bill mandated a program of comprehensive sex ed which BEGAN in Kindergarten, and stated that the TOTAL PROGRAM would include abstinence, contraception, prevention of STDs, etc. The bill seems to have delegated to the state board of education the responsibility for constructing a K-12 program that would cover all of these aspects in a manner that was, at every level, "age appropriate". Back in 2004, according to FactCheck, Obama was asked by Alan Keyes what on earth could possibly be age appropriate to Kindergartners in a sex ed curriculum (good question!). Obama answered that information about inappropriate touching was age appropriate, which is not a bad answer (he didn't say what else was and wasn't age appropriate).

The text of the McCain ad, again according to FactCheck, says "Obama’s one accomplishment? Legislation to teach 'comprehensive sex education' to kindergarteners. Learning about sex before learning to read?" This seems to me to imply that ALL the information is being taught to Kindergartners, when in fact the bill says that only the part of the comprehensive curriculum that is "age appropriate" should be included at each level, and more should be added later. Presumably Obama and the others who voted for the bill assumed that the board of education would not be so stupid as to think that Kindergartners need to know how to put on a condom (or whatever). If that's a bad assumption, it seems like firing the board of education is a better solution than writing a more specific bill. Of course, the details of what exactly to include are difficult, and perhaps we shouldn't trust bureaucrats with them (but then again, we probably shouldn't trust politicians either), so I'm not saying I'm happy with it, I'm just saying that it's not as egregious as the ad seems to suggest.

I suppose this may be more of a "reducing the issue to a sound bite" case than an outright lying case, but they could easily have been more accurate and said "Legislation to teach 'comprehensive sex education' beginning in Kindergarten" and it would have taken only an extra fraction of a second.

I didn't get the impression that the bill was talking about the overall package with just pieces at each level. It's not entirely clear, but the sense I got from the bill is that all the items it discusses will be true at each level. This is especially so because the emphasis of the bill is on STD prevention and instruction in how to use contraception. It isn't until you get well into the second half of the list of what the curriculum includes that you even get a mention of the one thing Obama says he'd allow in kindergarten. At the very least it's a bad bill. I'm not denying that the ad isn't exactly accurate, but I don't think it's fair to call it an outright lie either, which is what virtually everyone I've come across was asserting.

It was a lie. At the very least it was blatantly misleading. Don't forget, of course, that McCain's been lying about Obama raising taxes, taking financial advice from whatshisname, lipstick on a pig, and so on.

The bill says this:
"SB99: Course material and instruction shall discuss and provide
for the development of positive communication skills to maintain healthy relationships and avoid unwanted sexual activity. ... Course material and instruction shall teach pupils ... how to say no to unwanted sexual advances ... and shall include information about verbal, physical, and visual sexual harassment, including without limitation nonconsensual sexual advances, nonconsensual physical sexual contact, and rape by an acquaintance. The course material and instruction shall contain methods of preventing sexual assault by an acquaintance, including exercising good judgment and avoiding behavior that impairs one's judgment. "

The fact that it comes later in the bill, or that the bill is not primarily about this, is irrelevant. And, given that it is 'age appropriate', presumably one would not teach kindergartners about STD's, and where the pee-pee goes, etc.

Look at the scope of 'comprehensive' in "comprehensive sex education for K-12". Does that mean that kindergartners should get comprehensive sex education? Of course not, if kindergartners got the whole shebang then they wouldn't need to learn anything about sex after kindergarten. McCain's ad implies that Obama wants kindergartners to learn about sex, which is blatantly untrue.

McCain's campaign is the most misleading one I've ever seen in my lifetime, and he should be chided for it, not defended.

Two more things, one somewhat redundant with what I said above. I can be for 'comprehensive math education' for K-12, and of course it doesn't mean that kindergartners should learn calculus. I don't know why Obama supporting sex ed for kindergartners, merely in the form of education to prevent sexual predators should lead one to be able to say, without qualification, 'that Obama supports comprehensive sex education for kindergartners.' The fact that there's a spin on that which is true, which you focus on, also seems to be misleading, or at the very least, really uncharitable. (And I think of you as the king of charity).

I also don't understand, what exactly is wrong with what says? I can't see anything wrong with it.

The point of pointing out that it's later in the bill and not the main intent of the bill is that Obama has consistently claimed that the only purpose of the bill was to teach kids how to avoid sexual predators. That's not true according to the sponsors of the bill, and it doesn't fit with what the bill actually says.

It's possible to take the "comprehensive" with wide scope, but it doesn't seem to me to be the most natural way to take it. If I hear someone talking about comprehensive sex ed for K-12, I assume it's comprehensive for all of K-12, i.e. it's a comprehensive curriculum for each of the grades. As you point out, that doesn't mean there's the same level of detail for each component of the comprehensive curriculum, but a comprehensive math education program has math at every level. A comprehensive sex ed program has sex ed at every level. The kindergarten level is a comprehensive sex ed kindergarten program, and it's age-appropriate according to someone or other's later determination of what's age-appropriate (not according to anything the bill specifies as such, as Obama's statements seem to imply). I wouldn't assume from that that it's only talking about identifying sexual predators at the kindergarten level, and then original promotional materials from the sponsors of the bill (and the testimony of the one sponsor York got to talk to him) seems to confirm that it wasn't their intent to limit it to that.

McCain's campaign is no more misleading than the Obama campaign, which claimed that Sarah Palin has no more executive experience besides being a small-town mayor. Obama has a pretty long history in this campaign of giving implausible and fact-challenged accounts of his past reasons for things, including both legislation he's supported and associations he's had with people many would consider extreme. I've lost patience with him on things like that, but even giving him the benefit of the doubt on this one it doesn't seem as if he's being accurate to the original purpose of the bill and to what it says. Most likely he just supported it because Planned Parenthood did and didn't think much about it. That seems to have been his strategy with a lot of things as state senator, and his more recent attempts to justify them leave him seeming not to have thought about them much.

The taxes thing is not a lie on McCain's part. Obama's response to that is seriously misleading, in fact. He ignores all taxes except the income tax when he claims he's going to lower Obama wants to raise or add new taxes on lots of things. Look at his energy plan, for instance. Many of these taxes would indeed apply to the middle class. That's even ignoring the fact that he'll need to pull a Clinton and raise income taxes anyway given that he has no way to fund his programs.

Most of the statements in the writeup are true, but it's how they spin it. They do say virtually nothing in the McCain ad is true, when his basic claim is true even if somewhat misleading if you take it a certain way (but I don't agree that that way is the most natural way to take it). There are some inaccuracies, and some of them may well be deliberate. But they don't seem to want to acknowledge that the central claim is true.

Obama meant only that vis-a-vis kindergartners that the only purpose of the bill was to prevent sexual predation. I think that stands.

I think that just because someone COULD interpret the bill in the way your propose doesn't mean that that's the way everyone is supposed to understand it. Once again, if you interpret 'comprehensive' with narrow scope, then the bill's suggesting that kindergartners should get all the fundamentals. This doesn't make sense combined with the claims about age-appropriateness.

The most misleading part of the ad is that it states that Obama wants kindergartners to learn a lot about sex before reading. I can't see how this is misleading.

I don't want to get into the comparison about who's more misleading. I think that the Obama campaign can be misleading as well, and can think up several examples. If we just focus on McCain's ad, Palin's speech, and so on, I think we can conclude that they are grossly misleading, regardless of whether Obama is or not. (I think to a far lesser degree).

Of course, the liberal media/blogs, and so on, are often very unfair to McCain/Palin, but I wouldn't hold Obama responsible for all that.

Anyways, an ugly, ugly campaign. McCain often admits that his campaign is nasty, and blames it on Obama for not agreeing to have the town hall meetings. I can't see this as a good excuse. has three very recent Obama examples here, here, and a href="">here. According to them, these are outright falsehoods. I haven't looked at the details.

The Palin example I gave wasn't from lefty blogs or mainstream media. It was directly from the Obama campaign, purporting to be speaking for him. He was responding to the charges that he has less experience than she does, and it included the numbers of residents of Wasilla, AK but ignored her two years governing the whole state. McCain has wrongly attributed most of the criticisms to the Obama campaign. Even if, as some think, there is have evidence that it does all go back to Obama campaign officials, it certainly hasn't been an official action of the campaign.

I thought Obama's convention speech was worse on this score than Palin's or McCain's, actually, if we have to compare. It was certainly more negative in terms of exact number of negative statements, but I thought a lot more of them were misrepresentations than occurred in Palin or McCain's (McCain's only had a few negative comments to begin with). Palin's sounded more to me like locker-room riffing, but Obama's sounded like deliberate misrepresentation for political effect. Maybe that's just tone, but tone is important in such speeches.

To clarify, though, my intent here wasn't mainly to defend McCain but to show that Obama's line on this is another example of his revisionism about his past votes and actions and that everyone is just regurgitating that line.

"Nobody's suggesting that kindergartners are going to be getting information about sex in the way that we think about it," Obama said. "If they ask a teacher 'where do babies come from,' that providing information that the fact is that it's not a stork is probably not an unhealthy thing. Although again, that's going to be determined on a case by case basis by local communities and local school boards.

So he acknowledges that this could vary widely in its application and could involve more than discussions of inappropriate touching, which sort of undermines his claim that it would only provide what he happens to think is age-appropriate, which he says is restricted to discussions of inappropriate touching. I just can't see a good way to put these statements together. Given that he's had the same problems with his re-defining of history on the born-alive bill, his associations with Jeremiah Wright, his views on gun control and the DC ban, and a number of other things, I have little expectation that I'll find a way to put these together. This is part of a running trend with Obama.

I'm not so sure section (a) actually requires any sex ed for kindergarteners. It doesn't even seem to permit it. The relevant sentence looks conditional to me - any class taught shall include this stuff, but it doesn't require or even permit that the class be taught in the first place (maybe I haven't read the entire bill carefully enough, though). I'm not sure if the "inappropriate touching" stuff counts as sex education. It can certainly be taught in the context of sex education, but I don't know if teaching it makes the context a context of sex education.

Even if section (a) can be interpreted as requiring or permitting comprehensive sex ed for kindergarteners, though, section (c)(2) clearly prohibits it. No one's going to think that that's age or developmentally appropriate for kindergarteners. So the bill may be contradictory in this respect (though I really don't think it is), most likely as a result of sloppy modifications and strikethroughs.

I don't think any reasonable person or judge would take the bill as requiring comprehensive sex ed for kindergarteners, though. It's a safe bet that few if any legislators would have voted for the bill if they'd taken it that way, and legislative intent is typically pretty important in interpreting something like this ( (c)(2) makes it absolutely clear that that was not the intent ). I take it that any alleged sloppiness/ambiguity/unclarity in section (a) is not uncommon in the preparation of legislation and that any legislator - especially a seasoned one like McCain - should and does know that.

So I'm inclined to think he's lying. He's deliberately misinterpreting the bill in the worst way possible to say something false about his opponent. This isn't to say that the Obama campaign is correct in saying that the bill isn't about comprehensive sex education - it clearly is *about* that. But that doesn't mean the McCain ad is correct in saying Obama voted to give kindergarteners compehensive sex ed.

This is an amendment to a law, and I haven't seen the original, but sometimes this amendment does refer to the original. For example, in Section 2 it redefines "Comprehensive Health Education Program". In section 3 it refers to the program established by this act, and it's not clear if that's just the conditional thing you point out or a program required in the original act.

It does say that any course in comprehensive sex education in K-12 has to have instruction on STD prevention, which does seem to require some discussion of sexual practices. It goes on to say that any courses discussing sexual behavior have certain topics discussed. You're probably right that the amendment (absent whatever the original law says), doesn't require anything for any given school if they don't want to do it, but I don't know what the original law requires. It may be that they all have to do it and this just applies to each course that's required by the original law.

But the other thing that particular line shows is that the law itself refers to each class or course in comprehensive sex education in K-12, which means the law treats it as fine to call a course in K or 1 "comprehensive sex education". It's not overly charitable to the McCain ad to say that. The law uses that language. It may use the wide scope Mark argued for in other places, but that particular statement seems to me to require the narrower scope the McCain ad assumes.

I'm not sure I'd concede that you couldn't find people who think some limited discussions of sex using simple terms to be age-appropriate for kindergartners.

As for legislative intent, that's a hot topic of debate among judges. Some judges do go with legislative intent, and this includes people ranging from Justice Thomas to several people on the liberal wing of the Supreme Court, but others do not care as much about intent as what the law itself says, and that would also include people on both sides of the Supreme Court (Ginsburg and Scalia, for example). It's not safe to assume that judges will take legislative intent to trump what the law actually says.

I think you're also assuming McCain bothered to read the law instead of relying on his advisers who told him the law said this. It wouldn't surprise me at all if the latter is true given how many things are fighting for McCain's attention on a daily basis. So if there are deliberate lies in McCain's ads, it's certainly not safe to assume he knows about it. Maybe it's negligence in assigning his name to an ad, but that's not the same thing as lying. There clearly are inaccuracies in this particular ad, not that it's particular to his campaign as opposed to his opponent's. But of any particular lie in any particular ad, I'm not sure we can assume the candidate knows about it when endorsing the ad. My point here isn't to say that there aren't lies in the ad. The statement that Obama hasn't accomplished anything else legislatively is clearly a lie on someone's part at some point, although it's repeated enough among his opponents that many who say it just believe it because they've been told it so often.

The impression I got after thinking about this for a bit is that the 6 in section (a) was probably crossed out and replaced with a K, not to give kindergarteners comprehensive sex ed, but to make sure that *any* sex ed that occurs in the public schools include information about STDs, birth control and so on. Granted, this is a pretty blunt way to make sure of that, but again, my guess is that sloppiness like this is pretty common. It would be fine for McCain to use that language so long as he used it in acceptable ways. Just because the language occurs here doesn't mean that any use to which he puts it is acceptable, though. The amendment does not do what McCain says in the ad - it doesn't give comprehensive sex ed to kindergarteners. That possibility is couched in a conditional whose antecedent is pretty clearly falsified by (c)(2).

I didn't deny you could find people willing to teach comprehensive sex ed to kindergarteners. What I'm more skeptical about is finding *reasonable* people who want to do that.

As for matters of legislative intent, what little I've read about the topic of vagueness in the philosophy of law suggests that there are at least some cases where you simply can't get by without considering intent (consider Grice too, and think of th eimportance of context). If Ginsburg and Scalia think you can just read any law and determine what it says without ever considering intent, I'm inclined to say they're being pretty naive (more likely they've got some - or should have some - more nuanced view about how and how much intent should be considered). Cases of paradoxical or possibly contradictory laws, I think, might be cases where the need to consider intent is pretty clearly important. More likely, I think, such laws are likely to be invalidated, but there may be some cases where we want to resolve the problem with an interpretation rather than toss it out. Anyhow, I'm inclined to think the topic of intent at this point is a red herring - the amendment simply doesn't require or permit teaching this stuff to kindergarteners.

And as for the topic of whether McCain's lying, he's arguably obligated to check the accuracy of a serious charge like this. Without a pretty strong basis, he shouldn't approve the ad and he's arguably lying by making such a claim on insufficient evidence - even if he's not sure whether or not the claim is true. I suppose if his standards of evidence are so low that he really believes what was said on the basis of an aide's say so, then he's not lying, but that possibility puts him in an even worse light and charity would seem to require taking him as lying. Now, if some legal expert told him the law said this, then he'd be out of the woods, but I'm not willing to do acrobatics to get him off. Simply citing such possibilities, I think, takes us beyond the realm of reasonable doubt (I think we'd be justified in using an even weaker standard of evidence here, so the fact that McCain doesn't even meet this one is pretty damning). He might not be lying, but I think the burden's on him to give an explanation. Given what we know, I think it's pretty reasonable to take him as having lied.

Nathan's right -- this bill does not require kindergartners to get comprehensive sex ed. So the McCain ad is false. Obama's characterization of the bill is also strangely misleading at best. But the McCain ad is an actual smear. The expression ""Obama's one accomplishment? Legislation to teach 'comprehensive sex education' to kindergarteners" is a highly inflammatory lie.

This bill amends the Illinois School Code (relevant section here). The Illinois School Code, as far as I can tell, also does not mandate sex ed for kindergartners. But it does establish guidelines for any sex ed classes that get taught. The bill modifies those guidelines in these ways (plus many others):

(1) If comprehensive sex ed is offered at any level, including kindergarten, it must include information on STDs including HIV. (Yes, it would be bizarre for kindergartners ever to get "comprehensive sex education," but perhaps some legislator decided not to take any risks with crazy local school boards. I dunno. Anyway, STDs are not transmitted exclusively by sexual contact; when I was in kindergarten, I already knew not to touch needles. So we're not necessarily talking about teaching kindergartners to use condoms, even if we're stupid enough to give them comprehensive sex ed.)

(2) In any course that talks about sexual behavior, "All course material and instruction shall be age and developmentally appropriate."

Again, neither the School Code nor this bill actually institutes sex ed -- of any kind -- for kindergartners. What it does do is place limits on what sex ed for kindergartners could ever include. On the whole, these limits actually make the School Code more conservative.

Nate, if that's right, then I think Obama has misunderstood the legislation as well as McCain, because he doesn't challenge that this was an expansion down to K. He seems to accept that part of McCain's statement. He just doesn't admit that the K level includes any discussion of the things the law spends most of its time on.

Ginsburg and Souter tend to go with the plain meaning of the text as it would be understood by most people who understand the language. They're more inclined to current meaning than Scalia, who cares mostly about original meaning, but their general tendency focuses more on the public meaning of the law, from what I've been able to tell. I doubt any of them would say that intent is never relevant, but when intent is relevant is when it counts as evidence of how the people writing the law would have understood it, and that's part of how it would have originally been understood (but only one piece of evidence), and for Ginsburg and Souter that's only part of the evidence of its public meaning, which could be different now than it was then.

(I should say that I don't think they've articulated this as a view the way Scalia has, but it explains their voting record of being very conservative about the text of a law when there's absolutely no political significance and only being living constitutionalists when there's a political result they seek to meet, and the text doesn't really allow it when taken in its original meaning. It particularly explains how they differ from Stevens and Breyer and how sometimes they appear more conservative than Kennedy, who just aims for his political preference all the time when he cares and just seeks a middle ground between the opposing sides whenever he doesn't care.)

I went to look at the press release explaining and arguing for the bill at the time, and it appears to have been taken down. You can still read it in its Google">">Google cache.

I think it does confirm the conditional nature of the law (in terms of its intent), which makes Obama's response surprising:

Senate Bill 99, sponsored by state Sen. Carol Ronen (D-Chicago), states that if a public school teaches sex education, family life education, and comprehensive health education courses, all materials and instruction must be medically and factually accurate -- currently not part of Illinois law.

I wonder if he didn't understand that at the time or if it's just something he doesn't remember understanding. The fact that most of the people having this discussion aren't picking up on it makes me think it is understandable to miss it. I already said the "no other accomplishments" side to the ad is pretty awful. That's not my point here. I thought the McCain ad represented the law pretty wall, and now it seems it doesn't get the intent right but Obama didn't either. His defense of it seems to me to be at least as far removed from the purpose of it as anything in the McCain ad. The way McCain's ad is inaccurate certainly doesn't justify the degree to which it's been criticized (e.g. Josh Marshall called it race-baiting, and I still don't think there's evidence that it's more than a misunderstanding with respect to the content of the bill and serious negligence with respect to figuring out what Obama's accomplishments were).

I agree Obama's response has been pretty unhelpful. My guess is he either doesn't understand the law now or never did (which speaks pretty badly of him) - of course, that doesn't make the claim that he voted for a law to give comprehensive sex ed to kindergarteners true. And I don't think it bears much on whether McCain's lying or on how bad McCain's lying (or anything bad he might have done here) is.

The last question depends on how much Obama's misunderstanding contributes to your willingness to think a McCain understanding is excusable or at least makes part of the ad excusable.

By the way, Jeremy, thanks for posting this. The weird confusion on both sides, I think, underscores the importance of taking a close look at the details in these cases.

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