Honestly, the Obama campaign has a new message. “We’re going to have an honest conversation,” said campaign spokesman Ben LaBolt on Monday in Charlotte, N.C. Senior strategist Stephanie Cutter elaborated with a knock on last week’s Republican National Convention. “What they didn’t do is speak honestly about how to deal with America’s problems, speak honestly about where they wanted to take the country,” she said on MSNBC.
On Sunday, during an appearance on ABC’s This Week, President Obama adviser David Plouffe skipped the word honest to get right to the heart of it. “Their campaign is built on a tripod of lies,” he said of the Romney campaign. “A welfare attack that is just absolutely untrue. The suggestion that we’re raiding Medicare, absolutely untrue. And then this whole ‘We can’t build it’ nonsense.”
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In short, the Obama campaign is claiming the banner of truth as a cudgel against its opponent. “It’s not explicit. It’s an implicit comparison,” said Brad Woodhouse, spokesman for the Democratic National Committee, when I stopped him at the Charlotte Convention Center on Monday. He pointed to the trouble that Paul Ryan landed in last week, after slighting some truth in his convention address. Among other things, Ryan condemned the cost savings in Medicare that he supported in the past as “the biggest, coldest power play in all of Obamacare” that “came at the expense of the elderly.” Said Woodhouse: “They lost basically a day of the convention with a media discussion of how many lies Paul Ryan peppered his speech with.”
Obama and his campaign seem determined to avoid the same pitfalls in Charlotte this week. In my interview with Obama two weeks ago, the President hinted at the coming strategy, casting it as a choice between rationality and irrationality. “The facts are on my side in this argument,” he said. “The question is whether, while we’re still digging ourselves out of this hole that we found ourselves in, the facts will win the day.”
For the record, the Obama campaign has not always hewed to the truth. One of its summer television spots focusing on Mitt Romney’s abortion record is centered on an outright falsehood. It says Romney “backed a law that outlaws all abortion, even in cases of rape or incest.” Romney has been consistent in his support for a rape-and-incest exemption since 2005, when he renounced his previous pro-choice views. Obama campaign officials also suggested this summer that Romney might be a felon for having submitted legal filings that said he had a controlling interest in Bain Capital even after he took leave to work on the Winter Olympics in Salt Lake City. The campaign offered no legal justification to back up the charge.
But in recent weeks, the Romney campaign has outdone the Obama-campaign deceptions by shaping its central message around two distortions: that Obama cut Medicare to deprive current seniors benefits, and that he wants to do away with the work requirement for welfare. In fact, Obama’s cuts to Medicare were cost savings with bipartisan support, including support from Ryan, that eliminated a private-insurance option that was widely seen as wasteful. The Obama waiver for welfare, meanwhile, does not do away with the work requirement. Instead, it demands that states show improvement in work placement.
In Charlotte, look for the Obama team to ride this message to its political benefit. So far in this election cycle, fact checkers and the media have had little effect in preventing the campaigns from misrepresenting facts. But that doesn’t mean the campaigns won’t punish each other for misleading voters.