What happens to political and journalistic norms when a national campaign decides to blow past the run-of-the-mill cherry-picking of facts, distorting of policies, and playing in the gray area between truth and untruth, and instead simply runs hog wild into malicious deception and prevarication? We're going to find out.
Mitt Romney's presidential campaign has displayed a special level of shamelessness in its ads and attacks since its very first one, when it ran a clip of Barack Obama saying "if we keep talking about the economy, we're going to lose"—a clip from 2008 when Obama was quoting an aide to then GOP nominee Sen. John McCain. His campaign has also taken other Obama quotes out of context ("you didn't build that" and "it worked") to portray the president as having said things he flatly didn't say. More recently they accused the Obama campaign of trying to curtail the voting rights of members of the military (a thoroughly debunked accusation—USA Today, for example, called it "a falsehood").
But the Romney campaign's latest line of attack, highlighted by a television ad accusing President Obama of attempting to "gut" President Clinton's 1996 welfare reform law, is a new level of—what's the phrase?—making stuff up. (Or as I put it in my column today, the ad is "grotesquely, pants-on-fire, Pinocchio's nose just punched a hole in the wall misleading.") The facts of the matter are that the Obama administration did signal a willingness last month to extend welfare law waivers (an act allowed in the law) to states if they come up with new, promising ways to improve the law's goal of getting people into jobs. Oh and the governors who specifically asked for these waivers? They were Republican. And they're not rogue Republicans either—the idea of giving states greater flexibility to deal with welfare programs is a very traditional one in the GOP, endorsed by many, many Republican officials over the years (including, by the way, then-Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney in 2005).
Those are the facts of the matter. They are only tangentially related to the fantasy spun in the Romney ad, where expressing a willingness to issue waivers to try more effective ways to get people into jobs becomes "a plan to gut welfare reform by dropping work requirements" so that welfare recipients "wouldn't have to work and wouldn't have to train for a job. They just send you a welfare check." The ad concludes that "Mitt Romney will restore the work requirement," which of course hasn't been removed in the first place.
You can almost hear the discussion in Romney headquarters: "Hey, the Obama administration is talking about issuing welfare waivers." "Are they gutting welfare reform?" "Well, no—" "Doesn't matter. Gutting welfare reform is a great wedge issue we can use against him with working class whites. Let's cut the ad!"
(In the interest of fairness, while we're on the topic of mendacity, Harry Reid's assertion that he has inside information regarding Mitt Romney's super secret tax returns doesn't pass the laugh test. But this is not yet parity: Reid is being irresponsible and I believe duplicitous, but his one whopper doesn't measure up in breadth or systematic-ness with the Romney campaign's growing track record.)
And as I argue in my column today, if this is where we are in August, imagine how bad things will be in October. If we're at the point right now of simply making stuff up, what kind of fantabulations will we be assaulted with then?
Steve Benen summed it up nicely at the Maddow Blog yesterday:
Mitt Romney's presidential campaign has presented the political world with an important test.
How are we to respond to a campaign that deliberately deceives the public without shame? … The Republican nominee for president is working under the assumption that he can make transparently false claims, in writing and in campaign advertising, with impunity. Romney is convinced that there are no consequences for breathtaking dishonesty.
The test, then, comes down to a simple question: is he right?
Part of the answer will have to do with how the press views and does its job (and Jay Rosen has a smart take on that question here). But part of it will also have to do with the voters. The Romney campaign's gambit plays on two things: One is the instinct on the part of the press to treat such disputes as he-said-he-said in the name of objectivity (hence much coverage of the welfare ad as being Team Romney charge followed by Team Obama retort with little discussion of the facts).
But underlying the cynical belief that they can game the press is an even more contemptuous and condescending belief in the basic laziness and stupidity of the American people. The Romney campaign knew that its welfare ad would be roundly blasted by the portion of the media that does fact-checking. But they're counting on voters to absorb the charge and not pay attention to the details or follow closely enough to get the facts.
It's a flavor of disdain for the electorate. We'll find out over the next few months if it's successful.