It wasn’t the first post-factual presidential campaign, after all.
Whatever else the poll results tell us about the changing American electorate – that it is less white, less homophobic and more inclined than the defeated Republican nominee to protect the employment and reproductive rights of women – the outcome also confirmed that voters still know a lie when they hear one.
No matter how often former Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney repeated the lie that President Barack Obama robbed Medicare of $716 billion to pay for Obamacare, it did not change the fact that he had done no such thing. The Affordable Care Act does not cut Medicare benefits. That number is a projection of what the program will save by revising payments to insurers. Congressman Paul Ryan of Wisconsin, Romney’s equally duplicitous running mate and the House Budget Committee chairman, projected the same savings in his own House budget proposal last year.
Ryan proved especially adept at deceit, most notably at the Republican National Convention in Tampa where, among other whoppers, he blamed Obama for the shutdown of a General Motors plant in Wisconsin that had actually closed during the administration of President George W. Bush.
Similarly, Romney’s oft-repeated and demonstrably false charge that the Obama Administration “gut welfare reform by dropping work requirements” did not stick. Obama did agree to the request of several governors, some of them Republicans, to grant waivers to the work rules spelled out in the 1996 law but only if they could demonstrate that their state plans would produce more jobs for recipients.
Deceit was not ancillary to the Romney campaign; it was a founding principle. Romney’s first televised ad last year included an old video clip of Obama spliced to appear that he was speaking during the current campaign. “If we keep talking about the economy, we’re going to lose,” Obama is shown and heard declaring. The only problem is that Obama made that statement in 2008 and he was quoting an aide to Senator John McCain talking about the Arizona Republican’s then-collapsing presidential bid.
Instead of pulling the ad, Romney scoffed at critics and praised the ad for hitting its target. “We obviously got under their skin because the last thing they want to be doing is talking about the economy and the president’s failure to get this economy turned around,” he said.
Romney’s pollster, Neil Newhouse, summarized the campaign’s attitude toward the truth during a discussion with reporters at the Republican National Convention. “We’re not going let our campaign be dictated by fact-checkers,” he said. It was a remark reminiscent of that made to the journalist Ron Susskind by an aide to President Bush in 2002, dismissing reporters as part of a “reality-based community” of people who “believe that solutions emerge from your judicious study of discernible reality.”
No one with a passing acquaintance with the history of political campaigning in the United States expects that 2012 will mark the end of all truth-twisting on the stump. But the failure of Romney’s unapologetically deceitful tactics could signal that voters have had enough of the “truthiness” dodge – what comedian Stephen Colbert defines as lies that have the ring of truth.
Longtime Romney aide Eric Fehrnstrom, a master of the form, may have doomed the strategy last March by a little too casually describing the transition from the primaries to the general election campaign as an “Etch-A-Sketch moment” when his shape-shifting boss would moderate the “severely conservative” image he had been peddling to right wing Republicans.
By Election Day, too many voters were onto the scam and offended by the insult to their intelligence. Romney sealed his fate with his final act of contempt for the truth – refusing at the end to take down a TV ad attacking Obama’s bailout of the auto industry that falsely accused General Motors of abandoning American workers to build cars in China. Even after the spokesman for GM called the ad “campaign politics at its cynical worst,” the Romney campaign kept it running.
It was one lie too many.