If dissembling were a competitive sport, the speakers last week’s Republican National Convention would all be wearing medals. Maureen Dowd called the whole thing a “masquerade.” The Washington Post called it “breathtakingly dishonest.” Even Fox News was surprised at the "dazzling, deceiving, and distracting" mendacity of Paul Ryan's speech.
Welcome to what Grist’s David Robert has dubbed “post-truth politics.”
Lying in politics is, of course, nothing new. What is new about the GOP campaign of dissiumulation, though, is the idea that it’s fine, it’s nothing to be embarrassed about, covered up or retracted. All politicians exaggerate or sometimes even just flat out make stuff up, but there used to be a code of ethics, so to speak, about how to handle the exposure of a lie. There was a need to at least keep your statements informed by at least a bit of “truthiness,” as Stephen Colbert named that old brand of political misinformation. Even if you continued to deny the truth, you stopped repeating the falsehood.
But that etiquette has apparently gone the way of candidate tax-form disclosure. Within minutes of Ryan’s bit about the closed GM plant in Janesville, fact checkers were telling the true story, that the plant closed before Obama took office. Yet when Wolf Blitzer questioned him about the issue the next day, Ryan didn’t backpedal; incredibly, he doubled down. He said he didn’t want to revise anything, that the plant is “still idle,” and that “the point is, this is the story of the Obama economy,” alleging that the now thoroughly debunked story was representative of the entire presidency. Ryan seemed to have missed the irony that the story was in fact now emblematic of his own proclivity for truth bending.
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Indeed, of all the falsehoods exposed over the past few days – everything from Ann Romney’s misleading characterization of her and Mitt’s humble beginnings to Mitt’s claim that Obama is cutting Medicare benefits for seniors – we have seen the GOP campaign retract just one: Paul Ryan admitted that his claim to have run a 1990 marathon in less than three hours was fabricated. He ran it in just under four. Even that admission, though, was an occasion for laughter, as he assured to forget it, that his brother already gave him “a good ribbing over this at dinner tonight.” The jury is out on whether he was consciously lying, or really had convinced himself of his spectacular performance.
Ryan and Romney sometimes seem thoroughly convinced of the misinformation they are peddling, so we don’t know whether or when they’re pulling a fast one on us or are just pulling one on themselves. Not only are they planning to stick with these tactics, they are apparently proud of their brazenness. As one Romney strategist boasted, “We’re not going to let our campaign be dictated by fact-checkers.”
The fresh-faced, sincere-looking Ryan certainly sounded like he meant it Wednesday night when he said, “The truest measure of any society is how it treats those who cannot defend or care for themselves.” Does he actually think that cutting food stamps and housing assistance for the poor or gutting Medicaid for the sick – all to fund tax cuts for the wealthy – is caring for them? Either he’s lying, or he really believes it, or he doesn’t know and was just mouthing the words. It’s hard to say which alternative is the worst.
Just as the Wall Street bankers convinced investors that shaky mortgage-backed securities were sound, Republican leaders are repackaging blatant falsehoods and peddling them to the American electorate. The Romney camp’s disdain for the fact checkers is of a piece with its contempt for regulation of financial fraud. Caveat emptor, voters.