TAMPA, FLA.—An ongoing theme of this election and its coverage is how the media should handle unprecedented levels of shameless duplicity in political discourse. The most recent focus has been Mitt Romney's charge—roundly and flatly disproved by nonpartisan fact-checkers—that the Obama campaign has gutted the Clinton-era welfare overhaul.
That theme erupted with surprising and gratifying force this morning at a breakfast discussion featuring senior Romney adviser Ron Kaufman.
As my colleagues Rebekah Metzler and Elizabeth Flock report, sparks started to fly at the staid confab when National Journal's Ron Fournier asked Kaufman about the ad and specifically the racial overtones inherent in a baseless, trumped up charge about welfare.
Not surprisingly Kaufman argued both that the charge is accurate (it's not) and that the campaign is not trying to push racial hot buttons. (Perhaps it was surprisingly—"Really?" Fournier asked as Kaufman made the denial, sounding genuinely surprised.)
The exchange went on for the better part of 10 minutes—you can watch the video here, starting at about 25:30—focusing on both race ("With all do respect, Ron, I think you're playing the race card here," Kaufman told Fournier) and factual matters, with Fournier and CBS News's John Dickerson forcefully pushing back on Kaufman and the Romney campaign's mendacity.
There are two issues here—is the charge true and is there racism involved in leveling it—and I think Fournier and Dickerson did themselves and the media proud this morning. On the first, they didn't let the lie go by but called it out unequivocally. "We have a huge obligation as journalists," Fournier told an audience member who asked about how journalists should handle such situations. "I don't think it's good enough to say 'critics say the ad is wrong,' or 'Democrats say the ad is wrong.' With all due respect, the ad is wrong."
They went on to note in fairness false ads have come from both sides (see the Obama super PAC ad essentially accusing Romney of being culpable for the death of the wife of a worker laid off by a Bain-owned company).
The second issue is also valid and deserves to be raised. There's no question that the welfare charge is racially fraught (see the Tom Edsall's writings in the New York Times for more detail), so it is entirely fair to ask whether raising it is a calculated attempt to push racial buttons—especially because the issue only exists in the campaign because the Romney campaign is making hay with it. "I'm sure your campaign has done focus groups, I know you're very familiar with that part of the country, and I know that you know that an ad like that touches the racial vibe," Fournier said.
And again it all gets to a larger problem in the race—the fact that there's a campaign whose attitude toward the truth is, as Romney pollster Neil Newhouse put it, "We're not going to let our campaign be dictated by fact-checkers,"—a comment reminiscent of the anonymous Bush 43 aide who admonished journalist Ron Suskind for being part of the "reality based community."
The whole thing raises an important question, concisely posed by National Journal's James Bennet today—what happens if the press takes a stand on the truth—and no one cares?
The answer to that question might well be decided by the election—if Romney wins, it will only encourage candidates from both parties to ignore reality and, essentially, count on the basic stupidity of the American people.