On Why It Matters When Candidates Treat Voters Like Fools

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Over the last year, I have talked to hundreds of voters, Republican, Democrat and independent, at dozens of rallies in nearly as many cities. More than any specific issue or ideological slant, there is one thing that I heard over and over again. The American people want a president they can trust, someone who will do what he or she says, someone who will not play this country for a fool. “My big issue is that I want a candidate who is going to stick to their campaign promises,” said Brenda Wright, a typical undecided voter I met Saturday in Florida at a Mitt Romney event. “They don’t keep their promises.”

All things considered, this seems like a modest request. But we as a country know better. We have all been let down so many times before. It is painful, in fact. When our politicians try to deceive us, when they slant reality or dumb down the details, it makes us want to turn off the television and put down the newspaper. It chips away at our faith in democracy. In 2000, David Foster Wallace described beautifully, in a Rolling Stone article, how many Americans react to their politicians.

What one feels when they loom into view is just an overwhelming lack of interest, the sort of deep disengagement that is often a defense against pain. Against sadness. In fact, the likeliest reason why so many of us care so little about politics is that modern politicians make us sad, hurt us deep down in ways that are hard even to name, much less talk about. It’s easier to roll your eyes.

This is why candidates who say things they know to be misleading should not be excused for just “playing politics.” What they are actually doing is much worse. They are hurting America. And we in the news media have a role to play here. We should be shaming them back towards honesty. It is nothing less than a patriotic duty.

This is why it is so upsetting when Mitt Romney stands up at a press conference, or at Tuesday’s debate, and claims he has virtually no ties to “Washington lobbyists.” “I’d go to Washington as an outsider — not owing favors, not lobbyists on every elbow,” Romney said at the debate in California. He knows this is misleading. He had just flown in from a week of campaigning in Florida, where a Washington lobbyist, Al Cardenas, who was also his state campaign chairman, stood literally at his elbow almost everywhere he went.

This is why it is so upsetting when Hillary Clinton chose to campaign before South Carolina’s primary by intentionally distorting the words and record of Barack Obama. As Joe Klein pointed out, her attacks on Obama about his legislative record in Illinois were disingenuous. As Jonathan Chait points out in the Los Angeles Times, the same can be said for her statements about Obama’s comments on Ronald Reagan’s legacy. The key fact about these episodes has nothing to do with voting records or opinions on Reagan. The key fact is that the American people–including, as it turned out, the Democratic voters in South Carolina–could tell that Clinton did not believe what she was saying. She was playing a game, and trying to put one over on us. It was offensive, and it hurt.

The same must be said for John “Straight-Talk” McCain, who at Tuesday night’s debate continued to peddle the canard that Romney had once supported a “timetable” for withdrawal from Iraq. McCain’s deceit is based on intentionally confusing two different meanings of the word “timetable.” But I have already wasted way too much time sorting through all this. The key fact is that, like Clinton and Romney, McCain knows what he is doing. He is trying to score political points by disrespecting the voters. Such behavior may help win an election, but it also goes a long way towards sullying a political legacy–for all of these candidates. And it should.

ADDENDUM: As I was posting this, I noticed that Joe, who I have not spoken to in weeks, had much the same reaction as me to the debate. His evaluation of McCain’s war rhetoric, below, should not be missed.