Monday, June 25, 2012

The Mitt-McCarthy Synchronicity

I do not, strictly speaking, have time to write this post, being that I have a submission deadline coming up on Saturday and I am woefully under word count. But I rarely have anything useful to say about politics, and today seems to be an exception, so here we are.

There was an article in the Guardian last week that called out Mitt Romney for, well, lying in a lot of the attacks he's made on President Obama. You can read it here. Some of the highlights include:

- President Obama has raised taxes. Taxes have actually gone down during his term.

- Obamacare is a government takeover of healthcare. After what it went through to get through Congress, it's not even a government healthcare plan.

- President Obama's stimulus only helped preserve public sector jobs. Public sector jobs are actually way down.

And so on. You get the gist of it. Michael Cohen, the author of the Guardian article, puts it this way:
Romney has figured out a loophole – one can lie over and over, and those lies quickly become part of the political narrative, practically immune to "fact-checking". Ironically, the more Romney lies, the harder it then becomes to correct the record. Even if an enterprising reporter can knock down two or three falsehoods, there are still so many more that slip past.

It's reminiscent of the old line that a lie gets halfway around the world before the truth gets its boots on. In Romney's case, his lies are regularly corrected by media sources, but usually, in some antiseptic fact-checking article, or by Democratic/liberal voices who can be dismissed for their "partisan bent". Meanwhile, splashed across the front page of newspapers is Romney saying "Obamacare will lead to a government take-over of healthcare"; "Obama went on an apology tour"; or "the stimulus didn't create any jobs". Because, after all, it's what the candidate said and reporters dutifully must transcribe it.

Pointing out that Romney is consistently not telling the truth thus risks simply falling into the category of the usual "he-said, she-said" of American politics. For cynical reporters, the behavior is inevitably seen to be the way the political game is now played. Rather than being viewed and ultimately exposed as examples of a pervasive pattern of falsehoods, Romney's statements embed themselves in the normalized political narrative – along with aggrieved Democrats complaining that Romney isn't telling the truth. Meanwhile, the lie sticks in the minds of voters.

As MSNBC's Steve Benen told me:
"Romney gets away with it because he and his team realize contemporary political journalism isn't equipped to deal with a candidate who lies this much, about so many topics, so often."
Romney is charting new and untraveled waters in American politics. In the process, he is cynically eroding the fragile sense of trust that exists between voters and politicians. It's almost enough to make one pine for the days when Sarah Palin lied about "the Bridge to Nowhere".

Note that "new and untraveled waters" quote at the end, there. In point of fact, this style of politics has been tried before, and was at least temporarily wildly successful. From Richard H. Rovere's book, Senator Joe McCarthy, originally published in 1959:
Writing about [Senator Joseph] McCarthy in a "Letter from Washington" for the New Yorker in the early days of his attacks on the State Department, I described one of the most striking innovations as "the Multiple Untruth," a technique comparable in many respects to Hitler's Big Lie. I wrote in part: "The 'multiple untruth' need not be a particularly large untruth but can instead be a long series of loosely related untruths, or a single untruth with many facets. In either case, the whole is composed of so many parts that anyone wishing to set the record straight will discover that it is utterly impossible to keep all the elements of the falsehood in mind at the same time. Anyone making the attempt may seize upon a few selected statements and show them to be false, but doing this may leave the impression that only the statements selected are false and that the rest are true. An even greater advantage of the 'multiple untruth' is that statements shown to be false can be repeated over and over again with impunity because no one will remember which statements have been disproved and which haven't."

You will note the similarities between Mitt Romney as described in the Guardian article and Senator Joe McCarthy, the man responsible for the Communist witch hunts of the early 1950s. And while McCarthy was not an effective hunter of Communists, his political strategy was extremely beneficial for the Republican Party to use against President Truman. It only became a problem for them when McCarthy started throwing bombs at the newly-elected Eisenhower administration... and shortly after that he took on the Army and lost badly.

Still, McCarthy's "Multiple Untruth" was never properly discredited or defeated as a strategy. It simply fell into disuse... until, apparently, Mitt Romney dusted it off for the 2012 campaign.

I believe if pressed to defend his statements (rather than claim he never made them), Mitt Romney would be able to say that most of them are not, strictly speaking, lies. For example, he's said repeatedly that President Obama had complete control of Congress for two years. In point of fact, the Democrats only controlled Congress for seven weeks, the time between Senator Al Franken being seated and Senator Ted Kennedy's passing. For the rest of those two years the Senate was at the mercy of the filibuster, and would require at least some Republican support to do anything.

So Mitt Romney is not telling the truth; but he can easily say, for example, that he meant that the Democrats had a majority in both houses of Congress, which is correct. And yet his statements imply that the Democrats and President Obama had carte blanche to do anything they wanted for two years, and that's not true at all.

I don't believe that Mitt Romney could get away with this sort of thing in a televised debate against President Obama. But if he succeeds in distorting the public perception of President Obama's first term, he might not have to, especially if the economy takes a sharp downward turn in the next few months

And if Mitt Romney wins? There's been little sign that Romney is cut from the same cloth as Joe McCarthy, so he's unlikely to self-destruct in office. But he might succeed in making it easier for other politicians to tell multiple untruths without consequence, and that would be an unfortunate development for the entire electoral system.

(And while we're here, I strongly recommend reading Senator Joe McCarthy. It's an excellent account of the Senator's career, and a lot of it still seems applicable to modern politics. Unfortunately.)