Why Deceit Is Everywhere in the 2012 Campaign

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Republican National Committee, Obama for America / YOUTUBE

Images from President Obama and Governor Romney's campaign ads.

Scoundrels! Liars! How dare they?! Well, it’s just another day in the 2012 campaign.

I tuned in Wednesday to Roger Ailes’ latest Fox News creation, The Five, which is every bit as funny, sexy, partisan and confrontational as everything else Ailes does well. The Five co-hosts were outraged over the outrageous ad by the Democratic super PAC Priorities USA that blamed Mitt Romney for the cancer death of a woman whose husband was once laid off by a company in which Romney invested. There was extended discussion of what the Obama campaign knew and when they knew it about the facts that were distorted in the ad. “They don’t just have egg on their face, they have a whole omelet,” announced co-host Kimberly Guilfoyle, speaking generally about both Priorities and the Obama campaign. “It’s so obvious. It’s embarrassing. They have no credibility.” It went on like this for a while.

On Thursday, I opened the New York Times to find that “Mr. Romney Hits Bottom on Welfare.” The newspaper’s editorial writers were outraged over an outrageous new spot by the Romney campaign that falsely claimed Obama was pushing waivers to undo the Clinton-era welfare-to-work requirements. Of course, as you probably know, the Obama waiver, far from abandoning work placement, actually requires documentation that the work placement of recipients improve. But Romney is happy to gloss this over. “This is what happens when a flailing campaign searches for a wedge issue to gain popularity among blue collar workers,” the editorial concluded.

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Both rants are similar in their selective use of the most basic commodity of the modern presidential campaign: outrage. The word itself is a bit of a misnomer in this context. It derives from the Latin ultra, meaning to push beyond, which assumes that there are some accepted standards of decency in political combat beyond which a campaign should not go. The elemental move in modern politics always looks like this: The other side is not playing by the rules. An injustice has occurred. Be outraged.

But who draws the lines when strategists for both parties believe there is little cost to peddling deliberate, carefully crafted falsehoods? The vast majority of the American voting public long ago demonstrated their willingness to simultaneously forgive fibs told by their own team and express umbrage at the deception offered by the other team. Something like 90% of the country who will vote have already decided who they like in the coming presidential campaign, and no level of Obama fibbing or Romney deceiving is likely to dislodge most supporters from their guy. As for the remaining 10%, most of them are too busy and exhausted to spend time differentiating between the relative qualitative and quantitative levels of mendacity.

And yet outrage continues to be the basic currency of political discourse, because it is unmatched in its ability to turn a complex intellectual choice about ideology and policy into a simple emotional choice about character and honesty. It turns supporters into deeper, more motivated supporters. The watercooler discussion begins with “Can you believe that guy?,” not “Will Romney or Obama give me a lower marginal tax rate in 2014?” So the campaigns and the ideological press keep churning it out for a hungry public. Turn on Fox to find out the latest Democratic outrage. Turn to the New York Times editorial page for the latest Republican outrage. Neither outlet need confuse its audience by cross-pollinating its outrage with context. Both sides reinforce the divide, and, in preaching to the choir and building the team spirit and the sense of victimization, they both clear the way for more deception.

(MORE: Checking Romney’s Claim That Obama Wants to ‘Gut Welfare Reform’)

The Huffington Post’s Jon Ward got to the heart of this Wednesday when he retweeted a Washington Post report that gave four Pinocchios to the Romney welfare ad and three Pinocchios to the Obama pushback on the welfare ad. (The Romney ad falsely claimed that Obama supported waiving welfare’s work requirement; the pushback falsely claimed that Romney has supported the same sort of waiver as governor of Massachusetts.) “Sums up the race,” Ward wrote succinctly.

All of this creates a huge problem for the nonpartisan, less ideological core of the fourth estate. We journalists, after all, are supposed to be champions of facts, accuracy and truth. But audiences have left nonpartisan outlets for the comfort of organizations, like Fox News and the New York Times editorial page, that focus on one side of the outrage story. I can already imagine all the angry readers of this blog who will write in the comments to protest that by claiming “everybody does it” I have given a pass to Romney or Obama, who is really the true villain of the political sphere. For those Obama supporters who think their guy would never stoop as low as Romney did with the welfare ad, I recommend reading this, about Obama’s false abortion ad. And for those Romney supporters who believe that Obama is the true liar, I would ask them to consider that Romney claimed Wednesday in his stump that Obama “removed the requirement of work from welfare,” a seven-word phrase that is false no matter how much you bend the facts of the waiver Obama approved.

But just saying the world is rotten and full of lies is no solution either. On Wednesday, the news side of the New York Times had a good story on Obama’s view of the press, which focused on an oft repeated complaint that is hard to avoid in the West Wing. “Privately and publicly, Mr. Obama has articulated what he sees as two overarching problems,” the Times reported, “coverage that focuses on political winners and losers rather than substance; and a ‘false balance,’ in which two opposing sides are given equal weight regardless of the facts.” For Obama, it matters that Republicans have shown far less ideological flexibility than he has in recent deficit negotiations, and he feels wronged by the degree to which the unequal willingness to compromise on policy matters is reported by the press as an equal failure to reach agreement. He has a strong point, even if it is an ironic one coming from a President who has appreciated a need for relativism in other contexts.

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Is there a similar dynamic when it comes to telling the truth in a political campaign? At times, and in specific categories of deceit, one campaign is more mendacious than the other. But it is difficult to make quantitative generalizations, given the nuance in the twisting of facts that takes place every day. Just look at the mess that is the current fact-checking industry. Is “pants on fire” the same as lie? Are four Pinocchios worse than three? How much? Given that fact checking often requires subjective calls, even the independent fact checkers sometimes disagree.

Perhaps the better approach to this whole problem would be to change the currency — to remove the emotional highs and lows of outrage and refocus our umbrage on the home team, not the other guy. Let us just assume the following: Both politicians in the current race employ political professionals who are paid to use the most effective tactics in their business, often with little regard to ethical abstractions like fairness and honesty. This does not mean that neither candidate has a moral core. It only means that the behavior of his campaign is a poor gauge of his core and that both men, as presidential aspirants, have made peace with the idea that stretching the truth is a basic requirement of the game at this level.

Now, this does not mean that the fibbing is acceptable. But if we remove the outrage, or at least minimize it, then maybe we can focus not just on the deceptions of the guy we don’t like but also on the deception of the guy we like. For in the end, there is only one thing that will force these candidates, their campaigns and supporters to hue a straighter line: Their own constituencies must object. Obama supporters must say there is a cost if Obama misrepresents Romney’s abortion policy to scare women. Romney supporters must say it is wrong for Romney to misrepresent Obama’s welfare policy to scare white men. There must be a cost for these politicians, and the only way there will be a cost is if the emotional level of partisanship decreases and facts gain on outrage as the basic building block of discourse. In a partisan and divided country that has niche information streams, the judgment must come from a campaign’s own supporters to be effective.

This is not going to happen anytime soon. But it is good to remember that the misrepresentations of Romney and Obama are a reflection of what the voting public allows. In a competitive democracy, politicians move on a dime. If the voters stopped feeling so wronged and outraged about the other party and its candidate, they would allow fewer transgressions by their own party. If they stopped succumbing to the pleasures of outrage, they might find a way to have less to be outraged about.

(VIDEO: Governor Mitt Romney Talks to TIME)

122 comments
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Richard Giles
Richard Giles

Having loyalties and even emotional biases are quite common but the intelligent way to handle them is to literally put them aside, to objectively and rationally determine what the truth is and then decide at the end what weight should be given the loyalties and biases; too many times the emotions take over right from the start, rationalizations are then the rule and the truth really is never acknowledged.  The difference is in the confidence and comfort one can have in their decisions, without ever needing to rationalize.

Take the financial support given the Republican / Tea Party with the strong strings attached.  Many want to rationalize that the Democrats have large contributors also but the reality is that it isn't even close.  Consider the likes of Adelson, the Koch brothers and so many other billionaires who contribute mega-millions to the Republicans and who make their aggressive self-serving demands, while the Democrats are really more dependent on many contributions from a vast number of people, who they then need to answer to.  The money, power and influence of the Republican supporters also can be far more prevalent than any the Democrats have, so the spreading of propaganda is not anywhere near as equal either; as has been seen not just in the manipulation of the conservative Christian, the Swift-boat propaganda, the Tea Party movement but additionally in so much more, always well organized, well directed and well funded efforts to con the people and manipulate public opinion.  Recognize and acknowledge the truth there, with all of the ramifications then incurred (including how the attached strings affect your own interests), and any resulting decision becomes more comfortable.

Politicians and their supporters don't want voters to do this; they want to bombard them with their propaganda, excite the loyalties, biases and emotions and have them vote from that position.  Today the Republican Party is owned and controlled by "the money" and together they are aggressively pushing their own interests, without time or concern for the people except to con and sway them as "pawns", with that resulting in America moving further into being a two-class society with the 1% feeding their insatiable "more" (never enough) appetite while the 99% continues to loose - Bush-Cheney style.  Recognize and accept all of that, then if the decision is to support that, it can be considered a realistic personal conclusion.  Whenever the process seems like it is rationalizing though, then it really needs to be stringently questioned.

MGG1
MGG1

After noticing a the cover of Time at a grocery center yesterday showing his picture and proclaiming that he has to go, I will not be buying another Time product in the future.  Do you really think Romney will do any better?  He can't tell the truth from a hole in the ground and the GOP sabatoged President Obama from the beginning with the "do nothing Congress"'; birther garbage; insisting that he is Muslim; and lying about everthing he does.  If does a good thing, the GOP tries to take credit.  The GOP has become the party that I personally think in full of wack-a-doddles who will destroy this great Country.   President Obama is making it better dispite his hurdles.   He has reached across the for GOP to stand up and help and all they did was sit down and be as rude as they possibly could.  What I know is my tax dollars go to pay for Congress paychecks.   I don't appreciate their sabotage of a good man.  And this Country will not tolerate going back to the dark ages of Tea Party politics.  You can't open the door and let light in and then close it again. 

MGG1
MGG1

After noticing a the cover of Time at a grocery center yesterday showing his picture and proclaiming that he has to go, I will not be buying another Time product in the future.  Do you really think Romney will do any better?  He can't tell the truth from a hole in the ground and the GOP sabatoged President Obama from the beginning with the "do nothing Congress"'; birther garbage; insisting that he is Muslim; and lying about everthing he does.  If does a good thing, the GOP tries to take credit.  The GOP has become the party that I personally think in full of wack-a-doddles who will destroy this great Country.   President Obama is making it better dispite his hurdles.   He has reached across the for GOP to stand up and help and all they did was sit down and be as rude as they possibly could.  What I know is my tax dollars go to pay for Congress paychecks.   I don't appreciate their sabotage of a good man.  And this Country will not tolerate going back to the dark ages of Tea Party politics.  You can't open the door and let light in and then close it again. 

Amy Smith
Amy Smith

Bill Clinton helped sink his wife's chances for an endorsement from Ted Kennedy by belittling Barack Obama as nothing but a race-based candidate.

"A few years ago, this guy would have been getting us coffee," the former president told the liberal lion from Massachusetts, according to the gossipy new campaign book, "Game Change."

The book says Kennedy was deeply offended and recounted the conversation to friends with fury.

After Kennedy sided with Obama, Clinton reportedly griped, "the only reason you are endorsing him is because he's black. Let's just be clear."

raghav19agarwal
raghav19agarwal

Dear Obama and Romney, you just got permission to bluff us with falsified ideologies, just try to use less of emotional outrage. 

I think the above line describes Michaels message in a more succinct manner than the hypocritical graffiti scribbled above.

Richard Giles
Richard Giles

For the last four years the Republicans have, without conscience or concern for the people, focused on faulting, blocking and fighting all Democratic efforts, just putting their political ambitions above all else while refusing to offer any responsible bipartisanship.  For the last twelve years they have insultingly ignored and taken the 99% for granted as they totally concentrated on serving only their masters, the 1%, and have used the power, influence and money of those who own and control them to together just con the people and manipulate public opinion.  For all of this they obnoxiously want to be rewarded, to be elected, to be put in the position to continue taking the people for granted and just concentrate on serving only "the money".  

They are being very aggressive, being cocky confident because of past successful creative manipulations and once again, combined with the very aggressive efforts of "the money" continually using their power, influence and mega-millions, they aim to get into people's minds with their propaganda, all intended to dupe and sway voters thinking.  They expect to just constantly use deceptive criticisms and creative slander against the Democrats, mainly against Obama, simply depending on the Karl Rove tactic to boldly say it loudly, say it often and just keep saying it.  All while they literally and continually offer the 99% nothing real and simply propose everything to irresponsibly serve the 1%.  

To any objective and rational viewer the nerve and actual dishonesty of what they offer, like the "birthing" argument, the Muslim accusation, the "socialism" and 'liberalism" scares and so on, actually are just insulting in their obvious gross dishonesty but they hope the repetition and persistence has an affect.  Money is being spent without limit, and that should be totally offensive to the people, in their thinking that the 99% can just be used as 'pawns" and in realizing it has actually worked for them in the past, in the manipulation of the conservative Christian, the Swift-boat propaganda, the Tea Party movement and the mega-millions poured into the Wisconsin recall elections, all being well designed, well directed and well funded efforts to excite and control voters.  Today they are emboldened and aggressively cocky, being confident from those past efforts and literally they now just take the people for granted.

They try to keep the people distracted from the facts and focused on their bombardment of deceptive propaganda.  They constantly push attention to the deficit and government spending, ignoring both that the deficit and spending that occurred under Bush-Cheney didn’t benefit the people, that they totally supported it, and then the reality that while controlling spending and the deficit are quality and needed goals, those issues really aren't what caused our problems - in every case what caused our problems is "the few" exploiting advantages, allowed by co-responsible permissive politicians, and then their walking away with gigantic gains, leaving the losses, the impacted economy and the lost jobs to the majority.  Even now they are once again attempting a new 'Swiftboating" tactic over the successful Osama ben Laden killing, with "the money" actually creating criticisms to fault Obama and deny him the credit that they and everyone else gave him for his authorizing and taking responsibility for that undertaking, all the way through it and to even keeping it from the Pakistanis.

These elections are not about Republican versus Democrat, they are not about "conservative" versus "liberal", they are literally about "the money" versus the people, about whether the voters will be conned, used and continually be abused by giving "the money" the control they seek in electing their "puppet" politicians ... or will the people be strong enough and with the clear vision to cry out "no more" and reject the propaganda aimed to control their minds, reject the 'puppet" politicians who will only serve their own ambitions and "the money's" interests and firmly reject the control 'the money" has over our government.  Today the Republican / Tea Party, in alliance with "the money" as their masters, is steadily pushing this country into being a two-class society with the 1% competing in having it all while the 99% continues to struggle just to survive.  It is really up to the voters.  Can they see through the mega-bucks being spent to con and control them or will they be manipulated into supporting "the money's" interests against their own interests?  We will have to wait and see in November.

Charles Bean
Charles Bean

I disagree, at least for me, I try to look up what is being stated by the candidates.  I think if more knew the truth better choices wold be made in the future in handling various issues being faced.

Albin
Albin

I've been puzzling this in my mind:  a) I accept that this is (another) swing vote election, and b) I observe an unprecedented media interest in buzzing issues on  Twitter, Facebook, etc. 

My serious question is:  is the swing voter, normally a sort of nebbish who only stirs itself to political interest every four years in late October,  on Twitter, Facebook, etc? 

Len Simpson
Len Simpson

Deceit is EVERYwhere in EVERY campaign

RonPaulKicksAss
RonPaulKicksAss

I am voting for Ron Paul!  Romney and Obama both support the Project for the New American Century.  I am outraged that the media rarely speaks of it.

Guest
Guest

Obama lied, people died.

Drew Hadz
Drew Hadz

I am a 12 year registered Republican who will very reluctantly vote for Obama. I do not support him but instead denounce the religious radicals whom wish to force their faith upon every issue that comes up instead of keeping it private where it belongs. I think that it is humiliating that my party rejects evolution and thus Biology itself that educated persons understand as proven Science. Why is it that 80 years ago two thirds of Americans could accommodate modern discovery with a Bible written to explain the world to an audience living three thousand years ago?

I refuse to believe that I am the only Republican whom thinks that our nation being fiscally conservative is what we were once about.

Why are more and more of us becoming rabidly religious to the point we both scare the world and provide it a shining example of what Ignorant Fools look like if they fail to grasp not only Scientific Literacy but also willing to deny the obvious and call the irrational rational?

Why is my party claiming massive tax cuts will fix a fiscally dying nation via some kind of magic? The Grand Old Party my parents belonged to would say this economy is so dire that we need emergency budget cuts to not only entitlements but even perhaps half of defense spending and actual tax hikes for balls sake. My still living Republican Grandfather says the economic cliff may be now to big to jump at all while believing the religious base is so utterly ignorant because the forces of the Antichrist are afoot!

 

Im saying the man i saw as being a religious extremist while growing up is spooked by the religious extremism he sees in the party.

My own party is now a bigger joke than the liberal twits i have always disliked.

oldprofessor
oldprofessor

You ask some very tough questions and I will not presume to attempt to answer but will add my own perspective.

I was raised in a southern rural community where whether we admittedit or not we were kin to 90% of the folks in the community.  There were Baptists and Methodists whose rural churches met every other week and the kids in the community went to both Baptist and Methodist events.  I did not know anything about evolution until I went to college...and it was like someone turned the lights on.

Every white person  in the community was a Democrat,  I do not know what the black people were....never discussed it with them.  All my immediate family became Republicans in my life time,  primarily because of racial reasons and most became less religious.

The good news is found in the younger generation.   They are better educated,  and more tolerant.  My grandkids are part of an international family.  They are religious but I see no extremism.

I am proud ....and hopeful. 

The Republicans have veered off track  but the country needs a  vigorous two party system.  The Republicans will make the necessary adjustments when the country makes its preferences clearly known.

We made the right choice in 2008.  I think we will make the right choice with Obama again in November.

Liz Smith
Liz Smith

Problem with this piece - the democrat ad did NOT blame Mitt Romney for the death of the speaker's wife - the GOP made that remark - not the speaker.

The ad highlighted that 1. people who decimate companies have no idea of the harm they do 2. health care should not be dependent on employment status

erromy
erromy

Well Fox News, Karl Rove and Lee Atwater started it.  Sarah Palin picked up on it with her "death panels" screeching.  Fox News is so unbelievable it comes across as a  parody of political commentary, something Monty Python could have invented.  But, incredibly enough an awful lot of the public believes Fox, and Karl Rove, and Sarah Palin.  A lot of the public must be ignorant and fearful enough to have given this organization and people such credibility and well-paid careers.  Obama wouldn't go down that road in the last campaign but discovered that the public responds much quicker to the milking of fear than to the building of hope.  If the public didn't go for it, it wouldn't be done.

Marlowe53
Marlowe53

Since the comments on your column on Obama's abortion ad are closed, I'll post them here.  The ad was absolutely correct. Romney, per normal, is trying to have it both ways but he has repeatedly supported "Personhood" laws which, by definition, would outlaw abortion for any reason. The Mississippi law which he backed made no exceptions for "rape, incest or the life of the mother".http://www.plannedparenthoodaction.or...

On what issue has Romney taken on the religious zealots and Tea Party fools who make up the base of his party? None. Not a single one. So, Mr. Scherer, what makes you think that the man who went from giving a donation to Planned Parenthood to pledging to "get rid of it" wouldn't do as he has said he would and sign a law that outlaws abortion?

jmac
jmac

Like David Brooks, some in the media have a great deal of hope with a capital H as they turn a blind side to the very real reality of the Supreme Court, not to mention Romney's devotion to his church.   

allthingsinaname
allthingsinaname

The Press has been the biggest disappointment. I rather enjoying the tussle between Obama and Romney.

Had the Press called out the lies of the GOP four years ago, I will ignore the the Kerry thing,we would not be having this discussion. Come to think of it , if Romney was getting the better of it, I bet you would not even write about it

BiillWeston
BiillWeston

Big problem is illogical conservatives  and gullible Tea Partiers get their news mostly from dishonest Fox News and columnists like Krauthammer--and thoughtful liberals get theirs

from truthful MSNBC and CNN along with the New York Time opeds--and never the twain shall meet.

Sardonic_Soul
Sardonic_Soul

Can you imagine what their cross bred ideological children would look like? You DO know that most media are owned by fatcat aristocrats who research what "you" want to hear, and spoon feed it, for money, right?  News -- all news -- is not about truth.  It's about RATINGS.    Just like the only thing ANY administration wants is ANOTHER TERM.  And they will do what they have to to get it.  Lie.  Cheat.  Steal.  Who cares?  WIN is what it's all about!  CASH.  Your "truthful MSNBC" is a joke, as is every other news source of BOTH sides.

Sardonic_Soul
Sardonic_Soul

Obama raised expectations to INCREDIBLE heights in 2008 -- and has accomplished exactly nothing but squandering our wealth and our health.  A bit of a "miss."   Now Mr. Obama wants another 4 years of Golf and world travel in exorbitant luxury.   What's a lie or two in the face of that?   What are the Democratic PAC's  GOING to do? Extol the advantages of Death Committees and crippling debt being run up?  Pull out the BIG LIE!!!  It worked for Hitler!!!  Anyone who can read knows the Whole World Is Watching with glittering eyes and baited breath!  On the edge of  laughing it's self sick!  No one has ever watched a giant do a very public auto emasculation before!  Standing Room Only for spectators for THIS operation.  The administration's gotten ONE peace prize for doing half the job, will he get another one for the emasculating us completely?  The Russians have a spot reserved for Uncle Sam in their Socialist Soprano Choir, and Mr. Putin can't WAIT for the codes and keys for our weapons locker promised him by Our Fearless Leader's very public Sound Bite.  See the thundering herd of Jackson's Jackasses charging towards the abyss of history with our Fearless Leader waiving his golf club and leading the way from Air Force 1!!!   Historians two thousand years from now are going to be comparing Obama to Nero, and remarking that at least Nero could play the fiddle better than Our Fearless Leader can golf!!!   Of COURSE his people are lying!!!  No Lies, no Luxury!!  The math is very simple!

53underscore3
53underscore3

Um, uh, now people, move along please.  Move along..

Godzilla1960
Godzilla1960

Two Supreme Court rulings have greatly contributed to this problem.  

The first, Dartmouth College vs. Woodword (1819) gave legal recognition to corporations as people.  The second, we all know by now, was the 2010 Citizens United case which allowed corporations to exercise "free speech" in the form of money.

This problem can be simply (although not easily) rectified by the addition of one word to the 14th Amendment.  The amendment begins by stating, " All persons born or naturalized in the United States...."  Insert the word "natural" in front of persons and corporations will no longer fit under the category of people.

I said simply, but not easily.  Can you imagine the corporate backlash against such a campaign?

53underscore3
53underscore3

Any attempt to modify the Constitution in that way, at this moment, would be opposed by which party?

The other, of course, is to reverse Citizens' United since the workers, who make up the bulk of any corporation are not free to assemble in opposition to the corporate voice - which means that a corporation is not a "free assembly of people...for the purpose of petitioning the government".

Alicia Brewer
Alicia Brewer

As long as Fox "News" is allowed to spew its propaganda and corporations and a few rich white men are allowed to dump billions behind the candidates they want, nothing is going to get resolved in an honest, fair and balanced manner.

Shirley Gallagher
Shirley Gallagher

All through the Republican's debate all you heard from Mitt Romney was Obama this and Obama that, don't blame President Obama i would hit Mitt Romney on Tax, Bain, off shore banking and GST Steel, Romney's 10 ways to stiff the IRS, Praised 12.4 economic in Poland vs 8.3 in the U.S.A., and all the Republican's party blaming President for the economic crisis, when in fact they know it was, Money, Power and Wall Street.  Mitt Romney doesn't have a plan and all he does is talk about President Obama.

Romney deserve what ever he gets from every one.

MomentoMori
MomentoMori

"which is every bit as funny, sexy, partisan and confrontational as everything else Ailes does well."

What else does Ailes do that is "funny, sexy, partisan and confrontational"? Hannity? O'Reilly?

Partisan, yes. Confrontational, yes. But I'm not sure I'd describe any of those as "funny" or "sexy".