Nearly three weeks ago, Mitt Romney suggested attack ads rejected by "the various fact-checkers" shouldn't be on the air. Candidates exposed by the fact-checkers should feel "embarrassed" and pull the falsehoods from the air.
Last week, Romney switched gears. Told that "the various fact-checkers" consider his ridiculous welfare smear to be a blatant lie, the Republican said fact-checkers are fine, so long as they agree with him. If not, they must be biased.
Today, Team Romney abandoned the pretense of caring about honesty altogether.
Mitt Romney's aides explained with unusual political bluntness today why they are spending heavily -- and ignoring media criticism -- to air an add accusing President Barack Obama of "gutting" the work requirement for welfare, a marginal political issue since the mid-1990s that Romney pushed back to center stage.
"Our most effective ad is our welfare ad," a top television advertising strategist for Romney, Ashley O'Connor, said at a forum Tuesday hosted by ABCNews and Yahoo! News. "It's new information."
The claims are "new," of course, because the Romney campaign made them up. Sure, it's "new information," in the same way it would be "new information" if Obama said Mitt Romney sold heroin to children -- when one invents a lie, its "newness" is self-evident.
Romney pollster Neil Newhouse added, "[W]e're not going to let our campaign be dictated by fact checkers."
Right. So, in early August, Team Romney believed "the various fact-checkers" should be the arbiters of rhetorical propriety, but in late August, Team Romney believes they're irrelevant.
It's important to realize there is no modern precedent for a presidential candidate rejecting the premise that facts matter. Mitt Romney is trying something no one has ever seen -- he's deemed the truth to be an inconvenient nuisance, which Romney will ignore, without shame, to advance his ambitions for vast power.
If you don't find that frightening, you're not paying close enough attention.
I loved Greg Sargent's take on this, because Greg's question is so terribly important.
In this sense, the Romney campaign continues to pose a test to the news media and our political system. What happens when one campaign has decided there is literally no set of boundaries that it needs to follow when it comes to the veracity of its assertions? The Romney campaign is betting that the press simply won't be able to keep voters informed about the disputes that are central to the campaign, in the face of the sheer scope and volume of dishonesty it uncorks daily.
The quotes in the BuzzFeed piece should send a shiver down the spines of the political world. Forget parties and ideologies, put aside agendas and values, and just consider what Team Romney is saying: they can lie with impunity and they don't give a damn who disapproves. So long as it leads to more power in Romney's hands, anything goes.
Romney is, in effect, issuing something of a dare -- he will ignore facts, thumb his nose at reality, and taunt truths with a childish question: What are you going to do about it?
E. J. Dionne Jr. had a column way back in September 2004 that's always stuck with me. He noted, in the midst of the Bush-Kerry campaign, that Republicans are not above lying, but Dems seem to be squeamish about it. "A very intelligent political reporter I know said the other night that Republicans simply run better campaigns than Democrats," Dionne noted. "If I were given a free pass to stretch the truth to the breaking point, I could run a pretty good campaign, too."
That was nearly eight years ago. It was hard to predict at the time that a candidate would stop trying to "stretch the truth to the breaking point," and start telling bald-faced lies, confident he could get away with it.
I was always taught that campaigns can spin, slice, fudge, and distort the truth, but they couldn't literally make stuff up. The political fabric of our democracy tolerates a generous amount of duplicity -- so long as there's at least a kernel of truth in the claim somewhere -- but demonstrable lies are unacceptable.
Romney believes the old norms are irrelevant. I wonder if he's right.
If Romney wins, make no mistake, it will establish a new precedent, and campaigns will receive an unmistakable lesson -- go ahead and lie; you'll be rewarded for it.