I looked out the window after typing the above, and saw that all the houses and buildings are still standing, the cars are still parked on my street, people are still walking around, and the world has apparently not come to an end.
No doubt, the view from Daniel Henninger’s office windows at the Wall Street Journal also reveal no cause for alarm, although you might think differently to read his op-ed today:
The election campaign of the 44th U.S. president is now calling another candidate for the American presidency a “liar.” This is a new low. It is amazing and depressing to hear this term being used as a formal strategy by people at the highest level of American politics.
“Liar” is a potent and ugly word with a sleazy political pedigree. But “liar” is not being deployed only by party attack dogs or the Daily Kos comment queue. Mitt Romney is being called a “liar” by officials at the top of the Obama re-election campaign. Speaking the day after the debate in the press cabin of Air Force One, top Obama adviser David Plouffe said, “We thought it was important to let people know that someone who would lie to 50 million Americans, you should have some questions about whether that person should sit in the Oval Office.”
Explicitly calling someone a “liar” is—or used to be—a serious and rare charge, in or out of politics. It’s a loaded word. It crosses a line. “Liar” suggests bad faith and conscious duplicity—a total, cynical falsity.
The Obama campaign’s resurrection of “liar” as a political tool is odious because it has such a repellent pedigree. It dates to the sleazy world of fascist and totalitarian propaganda in the 1930s. It was part of the milieu of stooges, show trials and dupes. These were people willing to say anything to defeat their opposition. Denouncing people as liars was at the center of it. The idea was never to elevate political debate but to debauch it. The purpose of calling someone a liar then was not merely to refute their ideas or arguments. It was to nullify them, to eliminate them from participation in politics. …
Henninger maintains there are more polite ways to convey the meaning “Mitt Romney is a liar” without using the word liar. Ed Kilgore isn’t buying it (emphasis is mine):
Sometimes people on the left accuse Romney of lying when it would be possible to accuse him of “misrepresentations” or “fudging the truth” or “serial exaggeration” and so forth. But you know what? Romney’s habit of using lies to reinforce even bigger lies (e.g., his preposterous claim that his “health care plan” would take care of the uninsured just as much as Obamacare would, or his alleged interest in governing in a bipartisan manner, or his supposed independence from the Cultural Right) kind of makes me lose interest in cutting the guy any slack in theoretically close cases. And in complaining (as his running mate did earlier this week) about Democratic attacks on his integrity, Romney hardly comes into the political court of equity with clean hands, having run hatefully negative ads on both his primary and general election opponents whenever it seemed helpful to his candidacy.
If Henninger or anyone else can come up with a better way of describing what Romney’s been doing in this election cycle again and again, I’m all ears. For a while I thought about calling him “Nixonian” in his byzantine twists and turns. But after a while, this became an insult to the memory of the Tricky One. In any event, don’t call those of us who have the responsibility of truth-telling about Romney and his vast, dishonest Potemkin Village of a campaign “fascist.” Nobody’s trying to silence Mitt Romney; we’d just prefer he’d unfork his tongue a lot more often. It’s exhausting just keeping up with the man’s mendacity, or whatever you choose to call his aversion to anything like straight talk.
For people who are offended or terrified by blunt language, even when such language can be supported and demonstrated to be accurate, it’s comforting (and easy) to obfuscate the point by insisting on a fake civility (and I could write an entire other article about THAT subject — maybe another time). But nothing worthwhile is achieved that way, as Steve Benen points out:
Media professionals watching the campaign have a choice: they can either (a) be outraged by a candidate basing much of his campaign on ugly, demonstrable falsehoods; or (b) be offended by a rival campaign calling lies “lies.” Henninger prefers the latter; I think that’s backwards.
Indeed, what I’d encourage observers to consider is the larger system of incentives. Imagine you’re a candidate desperate to win, and you’re prepared to do just about anything to advance your ambitions. You’ve decided the truth, integrity, and honesty are little more than collateral damage — the ends justify the means.
You’ve also noticed that lying is easy to get away with, since the political establishment deems “the L-word” too harsh for polite discourse. You can repeat obvious falsehoods, but the media will be expected to stick to “he said, she said” reporting, and your opponents will be asked to stick to contemporary norms, steering clear of accusations that seem shrill.
Under this scenario, what incentives are there? If a candidate doesn’t respect the electorate enough to be honest, and he or she cares more about votes than character, what’s to stop that candidate from lying constantly?
The problem here isn’t the Obama campaign’s use of a word Daniel Henninger finds “unsettling”; the problem here is Mitt’s Mendacity.
The emphasis on that link is Steve’s, and I urge everyone to click on it — it goes to a page Steve began some time ago chronicling Mitt Romney’s lies in this campaign. He updates it whenever there’s a new one — which, sad to say, happens with depressing regularity.
See also Kevin Drum on the subject of Romney’s lies.