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“A new era of truth-telling”

Published in the Sunday Herald on September 2, 2012.

In his keynote address on the opening night of the Republican National Convention, New Jersey’s Governor, Chris Christie, promised “a new era of truth-telling” in politics. He said the nominee, Mitt Romney, would not be afraid to confront voters with “the hard truths we need to hear to put us back on a path to growth.” What followed was a nakedly dishonest political broadcast: a three day, speech by speech confirmation that facts no longer matter.

According to an ABC News poll on the eve of the event, Romney is the least popular presidential candidate ever at this stage of election season: only 40% view him favourably, while 51% have an unfavourable view. Lacking a charismatic salesman, or an attractive new product, beyond the standard conservative prescription of low taxes, small government and deregulation, the Grand Old Party is betting that in a depressed economy, the best way to win over undecided voters is to tell them lies.

Only a fool goes to a party convention expecting to hear the truth. George Orwell’s observation about the fundamental mendacity of campaign rhetoric remains as acute as ever. “Political language – and with variations this is true of all political parties, from Conservatives to Anarchists – is designed to make lies sound truthful and murder respectable, and to give an appearance of solidity to pure wind,” wrote the author of Animal Farm and 1984.

In Charlotte, this coming week, the Democratic party will also tell lies. It will twist Romney’s words, to make an offhand comment about choice and private enterprise – “I like being able to fire people who provide services to me” – sound like he enjoys sacking employees. The convention’s organisers will doubtless trot out Joe Soptic, a steel worker laid off when Bain Capital took over the company he worked for, to blame his wife’s death from cancer, four years later, on his lack of health insurance. Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid may even repeat his claim that Romney paid no federal taxes at all for a decade.

These distortions are to be expected (and in Reid’s case, the assertion could be disproved if Romney released his tax returns). They take liberties, as Ohio’s Republican Governor John Kasich does when claiming credit for the economic revival in his state without mentioning the government rescue of General Motors and Chrysler. But Romney’s team is breaking new ground in basing an entire campaign on attacks and assertions that are demonstrably untrue – in the belief that public trust in political speech is so corroded that no-one will notice.

When Romney picked Congressman Paul Ryan as a vice presidential running mate, Rupert Murdoch hailed him as an “almost perfect” choice. The Wall Street Journal, a Murdoch paper, predicted that adding Ryan to the ticket “all but ensures the election will turn to deep philosophical divisions between the two parties over spending, taxes and entitlements.”

As Chairman of the House Budget Committee, Ryan proposed lowering the top rate of tax and gutting the welfare state to boost economic growth. His idea to replace Medicare with a voucher scheme was seen as politically brave: the health care programme for senior citizens is immensely popular and politicians rarely speak frankly about cutting it. “We won’t duck the tough issues,” he promised. “We will lead.”

Faced with the realities of campaigning, Ryan has done nothing of the sort. He has concealed his true intentions, literally hiding behind his mother as he swore to protect Medicare. His acceptance speech was repeatedly, flagrantly dishonest – in the evident knowledge that the remedy he prescribes is unpalatable to American voters.

He began with a reference to the General Motors factory in his home town, Janesville, Wisconsin. “Right there at that plant, candidate Obama said: ‘I believe that if our government is there to support you… this plant will be here for another hundred years.’ That’s what he said in 2008. Well, as it turned out, that plant didn’t last another year. It is locked up and empty to this day.” The description of Obama’s broken promise to blue-collar workers omitted one salient fact: George W. Bush was still president when the factory closed.

Ryan blamed the downgrading of the USA’s credit rating on the government, when the loss of AAA status was a result of Republican refusal to raise the debt ceiling. He claimed that Obama “has added more to the debt than any other president before him,” when Bush-era tax cuts and wars in Afghanistan and Iraq that Ryan voted for are the biggest drivers of the deficit. He suggested that the failure of a bipartisan debt reduction committee to come to an agreement was Obama’s fault, when it was Ryan himself who walked out, unwilling to countenance tax hikes on the wealthy in a package of drastic spending cuts.

The speech included some great lines – “College grads shouldn’t have to live out their twenties in childhood bedrooms, staring up at fading Obama posters” – but also much rank duplicity. “The greatest of all responsibilities, is that of the strong to protect the weak,” Ryan said. His budget would massively reduce funding for Medicaid, which provides health care to the poorest Americans. Combined with his promise to repeal ‘Obamacare’ it would deprive at least 30 million people of health insurance.

An analysis from the Centre for Budget and Policy Priorities found that 62% of the cuts Ryan proposes come from programmes that serve the needy. “We can make the safety net safe again,” he said.

On Medicare, he repeated his claim that Obama has “raided” the programme for $716 billion, despite cutting the same figure in his own budget – the difference being that Ryan would use the money to offset tax cuts for the wealthy, whereas the Affordable Care Act reduces payments to hospitals and insurers, without cutting patient benefits.

The Congressional Budget Office has estimated that under Ryan’s plan, Medicare beneficiaries would pay, on average, 68% of their health care costs, compared with the current figure of 25-30%. Obscuring this reality is fundamental to Republican chances of winning the election. Eight years ago, white voters over 65 years old were evenly split between the two parties. In a recent Pew poll, they were solidly Republican, by a margin of 54-38.

“You paid into Medicare for years — every pay cheque. Now when you need it, Obama has cut $716 billion from Medicare,” says Romney’s latest advert. “Why? To pay for Obamacare. The money you paid for your guaranteed health care is going to a massive new government program that is not for you.” Not for you: undeserving people will receive benefits that are rightfully yours. It is left to the elderly white voter to conclude who these people might be.

This is a subtle variant of the coded, ‘dog whistle’ appeal to racial resentment that has been so effective in persuading white working-class Americans to vote Republican. Another Romney advert, about welfare benefits, dispenses with nuance and suggestion entirely, in favour of straightforward lies.

“In 1996, President Clinton and a bipartisan Congress helped end welfare as we know it by requiring work for welfare. But on July 12, President Obama quietly announced a plan to gut welfare reform by dropping the work requirement,” the narrator says. “Under Obama’s plan, you wouldn’t have to work and wouldn’t have to train for a job. They just send you a welfare cheque.” Politifact, the Washington Post and Fact Check.org all found that there is no basis for the accusation.

During the 1976 presidential campaign, Ronald Reagan created the character of a “welfare queen” from the south side of Chicago (a poor, mainly African-American area where Michelle Obama grew up), collecting Medicaid, Social Security and veterans benefits using multiple aliases. The Romney commercial is intended to revive the spectre of lazy good-for-nothings getting fat on government handouts, even though welfare has been cut to the bone and accounts for just 0.7% of the federal budget.

The advert is on heavy rotation in Ohio, Wisconsin and Pennsylvania, where the white working class vote is key. “Our most effective ad is our welfare ad,” Romney spokesperson Ashley O’Connor told ABC. “It’s new information.” When it was pointed out that the information is new because it’s not true, her colleague, Neil Newhouse, insisted that “we’re not going to let our campaign be dictated by fact checkers.”

Romney himself has displayed extraordinary chutzpah, alleging (with justification) that Obama supporters have knowingly run misleading commercials. “You know, in the past, when people pointed out that something was inaccurate, why, campaigns pulled the ad. They were embarrassed,” Romney said in a radio interview. “Today, they just blast ahead.”

His convention speech was less brazen than Ryan’s, but still contained some habitual falsehoods: that Obama went on an “apology tour” around the world, that the Affordable Care Act will “hurt today’s seniors,” and so on. “When the world needs someone to do really big stuff, you need an American,” he said, and the inference, for those inclined to make it, was the president somehow does not quite qualify, by virtue of his Kenyan father and Indonesian upbringing.

This week in Charlotte, the Democrats will spend three days packaging Obama’s biography as an inspirational only-in-America story. They will demonise Romney as a robber baron. Although they won’t be so crass as to show Ryan pushing an elderly lady over a cliff, as one Democratic party-aligned group did in an advert last year, you can bet that his plans will be presented in the most unflattering, apocalyptic terms.

During his losing presidential campaign in 1952, Adlai Stevenson offered his opponents a bargain: “if they will stop telling lies about us, I will stop telling the truth about them.” In 2012, the line between fact and fiction has been trampled in the mud. Romney’s campaign is counting on it.