The Politics of Smears, Lies & Low Blows

Big lies and smears. It must be campaign season.

Sen. Harry Reid, the Senate Majority Leader, has long been known as someone who is capable of putting his foot in his mouth. He is also known as a former boxer capable of throwing a tough body blow, maybe even one that is a bit below the belt. But, trading in gossip should be beneath his office. When Reid said that an unnamed source told him that Gov. Mitt Romney had not paid any taxes for several years, without disclosing the source, he set Romney up. There is an obvious way to rebut the charge: disclose the tax returns. But, that is precisely the thing that Romney’s campaign had decided not to do. Reid’s unsubstantiated charge, more suitable for a supermarket tabloid than the floor of the U.S. Senate, was the verbal equivalent of the famous question: Congressman, when did you stop beating your wife? To deny the charge entails repeating it. No candidate wants to see the headline “Congressman denies beating wife” although that headline is preferable to “Congressman admits beating wife.” Reid’s charge was a low blow.

It is hard to feel much in the way of sympathy for Romney, however, in part because he is simply the least sympathetic figure on the planet, a man so scripted, whose life is so unlike yours and mine (see, Dressage), and someone whose career may have been typical of modern capitalism, as well as successful, in precisely those ways that have left the working class behind, determined to maximize profits at all costs, even if that means uprooting long-established factories and investing overseas. He is the closest political equivalent to Tom and Daisy Buchanan, a man who has walked through life rich enough to be unbothered by the broken lives he has left along the side of the road in the wake of his pursuit of success. Again, he is not atypical in this regard. There are plenty of financial plutocrats who entered into business arrangements that allowed them to get rich whether their business plans succeeded or not, arrangements that often robbed companies of their pension funds and working capital, only to ditch them when they proved insufficiently profitable on the stock exchange. The scandal is not unique to Romney, nor does it excuse the low blow from Reid, but it does limit the degree of sympathy one can or should muster.

Reid’s smear is bad. But, it bothers me less than the big lies that continue to be floated by conservatives in their assault on President Obama. It is a strange thing that a big lie is often unquestioned, while it is the little lies that get candidates into trouble. But, for the long-term health of democracy, big lies are more dangerous because they create a narrative that is accepted by a significant share of the electorate and that narrative shapes politics for a long time. A little lie can doom a particular candidate. A big lie can keep the country hamstrung for years.

The big lie I have in mind this morning came in Charles Krauthammer’s column. Krauthammer is a careful thinker and a careful writer, so he knows better than to pen this sentence: “The stewardship case [against Obama] is pretty straightforward: the worst recovery in U.S. history, 42 consecutive months of 8-plus percent unemployment, declining economic growth – all achieved at a price of an additional $5 trillion in accumulated debt.” There are both big and little lies in this sentence to be unpacked.

“The worst recovery in U.S. history.” Krauthammer needs to check his encyclopedia under D, for Depression. The Depression lasted more than 10 years, its effects ameliorated in part by the New Deal, but the sluggish economy only rebounding when the government went into overdrive spending during World War II. And, make no mistake about it, the 2008 economic meltdown was more like the stock market collapse of 1929 than it was like, say, the economic recession of the late 70s and early 80s, or the recession of 1991-92. Those were hiccups compared to what happened in 2008 when the economy was dangerously close to falling off the cliff and even the efforts to save it could not repair quickly the damage to millions of retirement accounts, bankrupt companies, or foreclosed homes. Krauthammer is smart enough to know this.

“42 consecutive months of 8-plus percent unemployment.” Lies, damned lies, and statistics. It is true that the unemployment rate has been above 8 percent for 42 months. It is also true that the economy was losing hundreds of thousands of jobs, actually losing jobs, not simply failing to create new ones, when Obama took office. The much maligned Stimulus (which Krauthammer maligns anew in this piece) helped to stop the bleeding, but it was not big enough to reverse the trend. I agree with Krauthammer’s criticism, by the way, that Obama’s invocation of the Hoover Dam and the Interstate Highway System as justification for his political worldview shows some of the poverty of our Wonk-in-Chief’s political acumen: No one can name a project like the Hoover Dam or the Interstate Highway System that was funded by the Stimulus. The Stimulus helped economically but it was so conceived that it did not help politically. But, Krauthammer also knows that there has been sustained private sector job growth the past three years and that one of the reasons the unemployment numbers have been so anemic is that the failure to renew key provisions of the Stimulus, like aid to state and local governments, has resulted in steep declines in public sector employment.

“Declining economic growth.” Hmmm. Actually, the economy is growing. When Obama took office it was actually declining. Indeed, no one in the first weeks of Obama’s term understood just how much the economy had contracted in the final quarter of 2008, one reason the Stimulus was not big enough. The rate of growth ticks up one quarter and down the next. Certainly, it would be great to see more robust growth. But, again, this recovery is not like previous ones because it was preceded not by a mild recession but by an economic collapse. People who lost half their savings felt burned and once burned, twice shy. The American consumer, who had lived high on the hog with more debt than savings, is now saving again. That fact of increased savings could provide long-term health to the economy, but not short-term help.

So, my friends, pick your poisons. There are low blows. There are big lies. There are smears. It takes a bit of work to sort through it all but sort we must. And, shame on both Reid and Krauthammer, both of whom are smart enough to know better.

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