All presidential campaigns fashion narratives in order to tell the most appealing story about their own candidate and the least appealing one about their opponents. After all, as the saying goes, politics ain't bean bag. And the Obama campaign has certainly engaged in its share of mudslinging, spin and distortion.
But Mitt Romney's campaign is history-making in its assault on the truth. Washington Post writer Greg Sargent has said that the Romney campaign "has decided that there is literally no set of boundaries or standards it needs to follow when it comes to the veracity of the core assertions at the heart of its entire argument."
Among seemingly countless examples, three falsehoods merit particular scrutiny in illustrating that Team Romney isn't merely fudging the truth but is, instead, engaged in blatant fabrication as a central campaign strategy.
In July, the Obama administration announced that it would grant states waivers to work requirements of the federal welfare program known as Temporary Assistance to Needy Families (TANF). Under TANF, states receive block grants from the federal government to pay for welfare, provided they adhere to specific mandates. One such rule is that TANF recipients fulfill certain work requirements. Several governors, including two Republicans, had asked for greater flexibility in how states implement those requirements, prompting the White House's announcement.
In response to this decision, the Romney campaign launched an ad that political media expert Paul Waldman describes as the single most dishonest presidential campaign ad in the television era, dating to 1952. In the ad, which aired for weeks, the announcer trumpets the success of TANF, which was signed into law by President Clinton. Then, the announcer intones, "but on July 12, President Obama quietly announced a plan to gut welfare reform by dropping work requirements. Under Obama's plan, you wouldn't have to work and wouldn't have to train for a job. They just send you your welfare check, and 'welfare to work' goes back to being plain old welfare."
These assertions are bald-faced lies. The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS), which administers TANF, would allow states to test pilot programs that do a better job of integrating welfare recipients into the workforce. It is false that work requirements have been dropped; there is no basis for the claim that states will "just send you your welfare check."
In fact, if a state's pilot program fails to increase employment, the waiver for that state will be revoked. The Romney camp knows this, and in response to harsh criticism of the mendacious and racially motivated attack, a spokesman avowed as much when he said that they will not be swayed by "fact-checkers."
Well, at least that's one honest statement from the Romney camp.
In a speech in July, the president argued that successful business people had help along the way. He said, in part, "there was a great teacher somewhere in your life. Somebody helped to create this unbelievable American system that we have that allowed you to thrive. Somebody invested in roads and bridges. If you've got a business, you didn't build that. Somebody else made that happen."
The Republican Party has jumped all over that last clause, insisting that Obama was slapping small business owners in the face by claiming that they didn't build their own businesses. It's painfully obvious, of course, that "you didn't build that" is a reference to the roads and bridges, not the business itself. In the fevered world of the American right, however, Obama is a socialist revolutionary and the enemy of business (a notion flatly contradicted by his actual record in office).
In fact, Obama's point about the context in which business in American succeeds is so obvious that Mitt Romney himself has made it on a number of occasions. But that hasn't stopped the Romney campaign from turning "you didn't build that" into a central plank of their election effort, as was evident throughout the GOP convention in Tampa, when speaker after speaker articulated a variation on the refrain "we did build that."
As Jon Stewart said in response to Clint Eastwood's bizarre empty-chair spectacle, the right wing sees an invisible Obama that no one else can. Nowhere is this more true than in the claim that Obama is "anti-business."
This is the granddaddy of all the Romney lies. The Affordable Care Act called for cuts to Medicare providers, including doctors' reimbursement rates, and to Medicare Advantage plans. The latter is an experiment in Medicare privatization that has proved more costly than traditional Medicare. Consequently, Obamacare reduces overpayments to the insurers who run Medicare Advantage plans. In total, according to the Congressional Budget Office, these Medicare reductions will reach approximately $716 billion over the next decade.
During the 2010 midterm election season, the GOP successfully attacked Democrats who voted for Obamacare by insisting that they were voting to "cut" Medicare for seniors. This was dishonest on its own terms, because the reductions in Medicare payments under Obamacare will not significantly affect the care seniors actually receive. But what makes this attack line far more egregiously deceitful now is that Paul Ryan's budget includes all of the Obamacare Medicare savings. Yes, you read that right. The GOP is pillorying Obama for Medicare cuts that are in Ryan's own budget, endorsed by Romney.
When Republican House Majority Leader Eric Cantor was asked to explain how Romney and Ryan could criticize Obama for Medicare cuts that Ryan's budget includes, he offered this ringing defense: "The assumption was that, um, the, the, ah, again—I probably can't speak to that in an exact way so I better just not." Indeed.
The Romney camp is making an audacious bet: that it can lie repeatedly about the most central and substantive issues, even in the face of an army of independent fact-checkers pointing out its serial dishonesty.
Romney's hope is that he can so muddy the waters that enough American voters, too cynical and confused to distinguish between the usual political dishonesty and the unprecedented nature of the lying by the Romney-Ryan ticket, will simply throw up their hands and declare "a pox on both their houses." It's a desperate strategy, apparently deemed necessary to paper over Romney's utter lack of conviction and integrity.
This article appeared in print with the headline "Pants on fire."