Used Cars and Politicians

Does anybody really believe it when a used-car salesperson says: “This baby is in top-notch condition–like new!” Or this: “You want a smooth ride? Slip behind the wheel of this peach.” And have you ever been told this: “Nobody beats our prices. Nobody.”

One would be foolish to take the vague claims of a used-car salesperson literally. In the climax of the 1980 comedy classic Used Cars, a villainous used-car lot was suing the good-guy lot in court for claiming that it had a huge inventory, “a mile of cars!” The heroes had to scramble and assemble a parade of cars literally a mile long in order to defeat the false-claim lawsuit and keep their lot from falling into the hands of the ruthless bad guys. What made it funny was the absurdity of the premise: If a used car lot actually did advertise “A Mile of Cars!”, no one would take the claim literally and it wouldn’t provide the basis for a lawsuit.

I’m not picking on the used-car crowd; people selling other products exaggerate too. There’s even a legal principle that protects them when they do so. It’s basic contract law that a buyer cannot reasonably rely on the imprecise claims a seller makes about a product. The law calls it “puffing”, reasoning that a buyer has got to expect a bit of exaggeration during the sales pitch.

I mean no disrespect to people who sell cars for a living, but doesn’t that principle apply to politicians too? One would be equally foolish if one took a politician’s statements as the gospel-truth or believed all the promises made during the election campaign. Just as buyers must reasonably expect some “puffing” from a seller, so we must expect hyperbole from those seeking our votes. One of the plot lines in Used Cars involves the good-guy used-car salesman (played by Kurt Russell) running for State Senate. He must have thought it would be an easy transition.

But there’s a line that must not be crossed. Whether you sell cars for a living or you’re a politician selling yourself, you shouldn’t lie and you shouldn’t make outright misstatements of fact. This, for example, is one of the fraudulent techniques employed by an ace salesman in Used Cars.

If I’m buying a used car, I should be able to expect that my salesperson won’t lie to me, claiming that I’ve just run over his precious pet dog Toby. And if a politician states a fact, I should be able to expect that the politician is not lying about that “fact” or has at least checked things out enough to be reasonably sure that her factual assertion is correct.

All of this brings me to the Supreme Court’s recent controversial birth-control decision and Nancy Pelosi. In a 5-4 decision, the Court ruled that Hobby Lobby did not have to offer post-conception birth control to its employees under its health-insurance plan because the family members who own the business have a sincere religious belief that life begins at conception. (Hobby Lobby objected to four things, among them the “morning after” pill and an IUD that prevents implantation of the fertilized egg.) This was Ms. Pelosi’s response: “Really, we should be afraid of this court.  The five guys who start determining what contraceptions are legal. Let’s not even go there.”

The decision, of course, did not make post-conception birth control illegal. The Court’s opinion–signed by those “five guys”–actually states that “women … have a constitutional right to obtain contraceptives”, upholding a 49-year-old precedent. Female employees of Hobby Lobby are free to purchase post-conception birth control on their own. Yes, some of those women won’t be able to do so; getting an IUD can be complicated and expensive. Had the ex-Speaker said “The five guys who start limiting a woman’s access to contraceptions”, then no one could complain: the decision certainly does that.

But she didn’t; she said that those five guys determined “what contraceptions are legal”. Big difference. (And she wasn’t the only politician who misrepresented the Hobby Lobby decision. The Washington Post’s Fact Checker column said the Democrat response was “untethered” from the facts.) We should expect Nancy Pelosi to engage in a bit of political bluster and exaggeration. It’s part of her job, after all. But blatant misrepresentations of fact cross the line.

Again, we have a right to expect that a politician has at least checked things out enough to be reasonably sure that her assertion is not a gross misrepresentation of the facts. And if a politician fails to do so, we should expect the politician to accept responsibility, own up to the mistake, apologize for it and set the record straight. Nancy Pelosi didn’t. Instead her spokesman issued a statement that Pelosi “misspoke”. Too tepid. Too little. Not enough.

Would it have been so hard for her to say this:

 I’m sorry. I was so worked up about the Hobby Lobby decision that I didn’t check my facts carefully before I opened my mouth. The points I should have made were that the decision limits a woman’s access to birth control and seems to signal greater limitations from the Court in the future. But that’s not what I said. In mischaracterizing the Court’s opinion, I unnecessarily added fuel to the fire surrounding this topic and misinformed people who have a right to trust that what I say as a public servant is well-researched and true. I’m sorry I let all of you down. I’ll do better in the future.

 

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