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Bush, Kerry Camps Play the Numbers Game

President Bush's re-election campaign says a vote for lower taxes logically can be a vote for higher ones. Democrats say putting more money into a program than the year before can really be a cut in spending.

Welcome to the campaign sport of Extreme Math, where up is down, down is up and numbers get a sweaty workout like nowhere else.

Bush's campaign stepped up the statistical slugfest with an attack on John Kerry's (searchvoting record on taxes in the Senate. "Kerry supported higher taxes over 350 times," says a Bush campaign ad. Bush himself said of the Massachusetts senator: "Over the years, he's voted over 350 times for higher taxes on the American people."

That magic number comes with a bit of poofery. In the tally, Bush's campaign counts:

— Kerry's votes for tax cuts that were not as deep as Senate Republicans had proposed. Therefore, a vote for a smaller tax cut is characterized as a vote for higher taxes.

— Kerry's votes against tax cuts proposed by Republicans. So, a vote to keep taxes the same is counted as a vote for higher taxes. The University of Pennsylvania's Annenberg Public Policy Center (search), in an analysis of the Bush campaign's claims, found that the bulk of the 350 examples fit into this category.

— Multiple votes on a single tax matter, as legislation worked through the process or was repeatedly reintroduced.

For example, a Bush ad says Kerry "supported higher gasoline taxes 11 times." But nine of those cases dealt with the same increase, a 4.3-cents-a-gallon hike enacted in 1993 as part of a deficit-cutting package, the Annenberg Public Policy Center found in its analyses of claims and counterclaims by Bush and Democrats.

Five of those votes were cast as the bill moved from one stage to the other; another four came between 1996 and 2000 as Republicans tried to repeal the increase. The 11 examples include a time, in 1994, when Kerry briefly endorsed someone else's proposal to raise the gas tax by 50 cents. It never came to a vote.

Bob Lichter, president of the Statistical Assessment Service (search), a nonpartisan group that tries to expose the misuse of statistics, says the GOP's "artful" calculations might be defensible under the most generous interpretation.

"Even if it's factually true, it violates the spirit of the truth," he said. "You could have a lower number with greater truth, but less power."

Democrats do attack accounting, too.

One of their favorite devices, employed to good effect in the mid-1990s debate over restraining the Medicare budget, is to characterize slower growth in spending, or spending less than the maximum authorized by law, as a cut.

An Internet ad by the Democratic National Committee (searchsays Bush "cuts key education programs" by 27 percent and "slashes job training" by 24 percent.

Bush asked Congress for less money for education than had been authorized under the No Child Left Behind Act (search), but that's hardly a cut. Education spending has increased almost 60 percent during the three years of his presidency, more than during the eight years of President Clinton.

And, most of the job-training money Bush is "slashing" is actually being shuffled from one program to others.

Lichter said both sides are essentially using the same logic — the Republicans consider a tax cut lower than theirs a tax increase; Democrats count a spending increase lower than theirs a cut.

"What's up and down depends on where you start," he said.

The Bush campaign's device of dinging Kerry each time a single measure is voted on reminds Lichter of Mark Moseley (search), a Washington Redskins kicker whose contract offered a bonus "for each additional NFL record" he set in the 1982 season.

As it turned out, Moseley kicked 20 field goals in a row, breaking the NFL's single-season mark of 16 consecutive field goals. The Redskins paid him for breaking one record.

Moseley argued that each field goal over 16 broke another record and that he deserved another bonus. The Redskins didn't buy that but gave him $2,500 to settle.