Psychologists have a concept called “the fundamental attribution error.” Essentially it means that people tend to view their own behavior as a result of circumstances, while viewing others’ behavior as a reflection of their inherent traits. So, for instance, if we see another car making a driving mistake, we think, “that driver is an idiot,” while if we make a mistake ourselves we think we were distracted or sleepy.
This is a useful prism through which to understand Mitt Romney’s propensity to lie. He says lots of things that are obviously false and that he clearly knows to be false – particularly, but not exclusively, about his own record. But it’s not clear that this tells us anything about Romney’s character. Lying is what politicians do when the truth stands between them and their goals. I don’t mean to completely dismiss the role of character here. Some politicians are more comfortable lying than are others. But circumstance plays a powerful role.
It’s Romney’s bad luck that fate has dictated his only path to the presidency lies in being a huge liar. First, he was a Republican running in a heavily Democratic state, which forced him to shade his abortion views rightward, and present himself generally as moderate to progressive, ideologically. After having had to shade his views as far left as he could get away with to win in Massachusetts, he had to obtain the Republican nomination in 2008, making himself acceptable to a dramatically more conservative electorate. And then, four years later, he has had to make himself acceptable to a Republican electorate that has moved further right still.
You can get part of the way there by undergoing a deeply felt ideological conversion on key issues. But you can’t get all the way there such a way. Lying is inevitably going to be part of the process. What has made it far more difficult for Romney is that his previous repositionings placed him in a spotlight that forced him to explain his views extensively. His views on abortion in Massachusetts and health care in the Republican primary, were a novelty and a source of constant suspicions that he had to allay with endless reassurances. Those reassurances have formed an extensive public record that he is forced to deny, revise, and cover up.
Now, if Romney really couldn’t stand to be dishonest, he had options. He could have just decided the ideological dissonance required to run as a Republican in Massachusetts, or as that Massachusetts Republican in a national Republican primary, was more than he could bear. But there’s no reason to believe that Romney is especially dishonest in his core – that he has any special propensity to lie to his friends or neighbors or clients. He wanted a political career, and once he made that decision, he had only two choices: massive dishonesty or certain defeat.