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.
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.
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.
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