PolitiFact’s Lie of the Year: Romney’s Jeep Claim

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PolitiFact has picked its lie of the year: Mitt Romney’s ad implying Ohio jobs would be shipped overseas because Barack Obama “sold Chrysler to Italians who are going to build Jeeps in China.” You’ve probably seen the deceptive spot, which sparked a backlash against Romney in late October and hindered his push to win Ohio. If not, here it is:

Calling the ad “brazenly false,” PolitiFact writes:

[Romney's campaign] stood by the claim, even as the media and the public expressed collective outrage against something so obviously false.

People often say that politicians don’t pay a price for deception, but this time was different: A flood of negative press coverage rained down on the Romney campaign, and he failed to turn the tide in Ohio, the most important state in the presidential election.

I think PolitiFact performs an important public service, and does so very well. That said, I don’t agree with the choice here. The ad was one of the most consequential of the campaign, and surely its most controversial. But even though it was deliberately misleading, I don’t think it was the most blatant lie — even though it was, unequivocally, intended to deceive, and Romney himself took the falsehood even further during at least one campaign event. The ad never outright asserts that Jeep is shipping jobs from Ohio to China. It asks the viewer to make that assumption. As I wrote at the time: “As political rhetoric, which is often measured by its ability to deceive an audience without crossing over into outright falsehood, it’s wondrous stuff. It begs the viewer to make false inferences.”

In designating this the “lie of the year,” Politifact seems to have factored in the furor the ad generated, as it did last year, when it awarded the dubious distinction to the Democratic contention that Republicans voted to “end Medicare.” That too was up for debate, a matter of parsing semantics as much as anything else. (Is Medicare still Medicare if it exists in a fundamentally different form?)

This stuff is subjective, as we concluded in a cover story during the campaign. Which makes ranking mendacity a mug’s game. I know because I tried to do it here,* and in hindsight I disagree with some of my own rankings. So I don’t envy Politifact the task of selecting just one lie from among the multitudes that marked the petty presidential campaign.

*While I’m copping to mistakes: in my original piece ripping Romney for the deceptive Jeep ad, I predicted it might help his campaign by muddling an issue on which Obama held an advantage. Obviously, I was wrong.