It has not escaped attention that Mitt Romney has built his entire campaign on, well, lies.
Anybody tuning in to the Republican National Convention on Tuesday night heard and saw “you didn’t build that” roughly fourteen gajillion times. The RNC’s stated theme of Day One was “We Built That.” Country singer Lane Turner unveiled his new protest song, “I Build That.” New conservative star Mia Love: “This is the America we know, because we built it!” Ann Romney proclaimed that her husband “was not handed success. He built it!”
On television, Romney’s main campaign theme is that President Obama has ended the work requirement in the 1996 welfare law and is instead sending out checks. In his speeches, and during the convention, the message is that President Obama has lectured small business owners that they didn’t build their own business. Swing-state denizens just tuning in to the campaign probably think the election is primarily a referendum on welfare reform.
Both charges are utter fabrications. It is true that in both cases, Obama was doing something objectionable to conservatives. On welfare, his department of Health and Human Services established a state waiver policy that could conceivably, in the future, lead to less stringent work requirements than the right prefers (even though the current policy merely allows the Republican governors of two states to carry out unobjectionable innovations). And his “you didn’t build that” speech — in which “that” clearly referred to public infrastructure that enabled a business, not the business itself — was an attempt to give wealthy people less credit for their own success than the Ayn Rand–addled right believes they deserve.
Conservative pundits not employed by Romney’s campaign have used these objections as a pretext to justify Romney’s lies — what Obama was really doing is bad, so it’s okay for Romney to pretend Obama was doing some different bad thing.
In the campaign press corps, Romney’s brazen decision to not merely indulge in puffery or invective or half-truths — as all campaigns, Obama’s included, have done — but to base his entire message on straight-up lies has prompted some journalistic soul-searching about the role of the campaign press. Reporters have come to outsource the role of evaluating the truth of candidates’ claims to “fact-checkers.” This allows the reporters to avoid directly calling a candidate a liar, but instead to point out that some third party, the fact-checkers, have called them liars. The utility of this arrangement has brushed up against its natural limit, a fact that was brutally exposed when Romney pollster Neil Newhouse asserted, “We’re not going to let our campaign be dictated by fact checkers.”
This statement might not be as bad as it sounds. Fact-checkers are not omniscient. In fact they’re often pretty lousy at their jobs, mistaking hazy judgments about fair play for questions of fact. Fact-checking organizations throw around terms like “lie” to describe statements — Obama effected a government takeover of health care, Paul Ryan would end Medicare — that are actually subjective interpretations.
But what the Romney campaign is saying here, through its deeds and its breezy dismissal of objections thereto, is not merely that it won’t allow a handful of journalistic scolds to govern it, but that it won’t be constrained by facts at all. And this tells us something important not merely about Romney’s campaign style but how he would govern.
One disturbing hallmark of the previous Republican presidential administration was the willingness of the president and his allies to rely utterly on the version of truth that circulated within the closed confines of the right-wing subculture. The meta-message of the Bush administration for its critics was: We don’t care what you think. What climate scientists or budget crunchers or intelligence experts said didn’t matter. The Republicans had their own people who assured them that carbon emissions weren’t necessarily warming the planet and tax cuts wouldn’t lead to deficits, and these truths would reverberate on Fox News and other friendly media. In that mental state, a Republican can confidently say or do anything, and — as long as he stays true to conservative dogma — he will be hailed as virtuous and true by the only parties whose standing matters to him.
One hope for a potential Romney administration is that Romney, and his appointees, would feel embarrassment at this method. Romney, unlike Bush, is not a product of deep Red America. Perhaps he and his staff would like to be held in high regard by educated people who get their information from news sources not operating under Republican message discipline.
The development of his campaign strongly suggests otherwise. Romney and his campaign feel perfectly cozy inside the confines of the right-wing information cocoon, where fealty to party doctrine is the only standard for which they will ever be held accountable.