Wednesday, November 23, 2011

Mitt Romney, political advertising, and bullshit

I'm sure many of you have heard about, if not already seen, the now-infamous Romney TV ad, the first TV ad of Romney's campaign, that features President Obama saying, "if we keep talking about the economy, we're going to lose." The ad attributes the line to Obama, and Obama did indeed say it, perhaps many times, but he was actually quoting a McCain strategist back during the '08 campaign. The ad implies that Obama actually thinks that he'll lose if he talks about the economy and that he said the line recently. The truth, of course, is nothing of the sort.

Politics of full of dishonesty and outright lying -- nothing new there -- but this takes that dirty game to a whole new level. And it does so not just because of the lie itself but because the Romney campaign is not just defending what it did but actually celebrating it:

The offending moment comes when Obama says "if we keep talking about the economy, we're going to lose." That was a quote from a way-too-honest McCain adviser that Obama loved to repeat on the trail. By evening, the ad had been attacked, derided, parodied, and ruled "pants on fire" worthy by Politifact. The Romney campaign could have cared less.

"We want to engage the president," explained Romney spokesman Eric Fehrnstrom in the spin room. "We look at him as our rival. It's all deliberate; it was all very intentional."

Romney adviser Ron Kaufman, an RNC committee member and longtime operative, simply said that the ad "worked."

"They always squeal the most when you hold a mirror up to them," he said, "and they overreacted, clearly. All they did was make the ad more effective."

"There was a time when the Obama campaign had real discipline," joked Stuart Stevens, a senior Romney strategist. "Today was a total meltdown. You had the press secretary to the president of the United States talking about an ad that was running on one station in New Hampshire. There was a time when Jay [Carney, a former reporter for Time] wouldn't even have written about this. Total meltdown. It's as if you have somebody on a witness stand, accused of anger management issues, and he jumps off the stand and comes after you."

We all know that negative advertising works, but in what fucked up world is it a virtue to lie like this? And then to revel in it like a kid who just took a massive dump?

And how is it a "meltdown" to point out that the ad contains a massive lie, that the ad itself is an attempt to mislead people, as if that is somehow also a virtue?

Obviously, this is just spin. The Romney campaign wants you to believe that it did nothing wrong and that it's the White House that should be ridiculed. But this isn't just about the lie itself, it's about an attempt to abuse American democracy, that is, rule by the American people, through blatant dishonesty. We've seen it before, sure -- Kennedy misled people about the so-called "missile gap" in 1960 (he knew there wasn't one) and used it to hammer Nixon, to take but one prominent example -- but that doesn't excuse it. As far as I'm concerned, Romney and his campaign should be exposed to widespread media and public censure for this.

For more, I highly recommend this post by Steve Benen that riffs on Harry Frankfurt's famous essay "On Bullshit":

Just so we're clear, Romney and his team lied. Then they got caught. Then they were pleased.

I suppose one could make the case that the leading Republican presidential campaign has a vaguely sociopathic appreciation for the public discourse, but I think Frankfurt's "On Bullshit" tells us all we need to know. Truth, facts, evidence, reason, decency, fairness — for Romney and his team, none of this matters. It's not that they’re considering whether to be honorable; they've convinced themselves that the question itself is irrelevant.

What matters is what "works." And what "works" is what gets aired on television. Usually, professionals are slightly embarrassed when they get caught lying, but the embarrassment is motivated by a sense of shame — the truth is good, being good is worthwhile, deliberately ignoring the truth is bad, and no one wants to be bad.

But there is no embarrassment when such moral niceties are thrown out the window.

This is, by the way, the very first ad Romney chose to run, setting the bar for how he and his team will conduct themselves over the next year.

Be afraid.

We all know that Romney will say anything to get elected (and specifically to suck up to the right), that he'll flip and flop and be, in Jon Huntsman's description, "a perfectly lubricated weathervane," but it now appears that he will just blatantly lie and do so while giving the American people the middle finger.

If you want a president who says "fuck you, I don't give a shit about the truth," maybe Romney's your guy. If you prefer to be treated with respect, to be presented with the truth so as to be able to make an informed decision when you cast your ballot, I'd look elsewhere.


Below is the Romney ad, followed by an "ad" ThinkProgress put together of Romney in his own words -- doing to Romney just what Romney did to Obama. If he wants to be a bullshitter, if he wants to drag the political process, as well as the president, down into the muck of his own shameless dishonesty, if this is really how he wants the 2012 campaign to go, this might as well be the appropriate response to his every lie.

(Jon Chait makes a similar suggestion: "[I]t's worth noting that at one point during the debate, Romney declared, 'We want those brains.' That's a line that desperately needs to appear in an attack ad, juxtaposed against images of an army of moaning zombies that Romney may or may not plan to unleash on America if elected.)

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