Officials with the Obama campaign have been a little less reluctant in recent weeks to accuse Mitt Romney and his campaign of "lying." In each instance, folks like David Plouffe, David Axelrod, and even Stephanie Cutter just last night talking to Rachel, were referring to obvious falsehoods that the Republican campaign surely knew to be untrue.
Today, however, Daniel Henninger has a provocative piece in the Wall Street Journal today, raising concerns about the "sleazy political pedigree" of "the L-word."
The Obama campaign's resurrection of "liar" as a political tool is odious because it has such a repellent pedigree. It dates to the sleazy world of fascist and totalitarian propaganda in the 1930s. It was part of the milieu of stooges, show trials and dupes. These were people willing to say anything to defeat their opposition. Denouncing people as liars was at the center of it. The idea was never to elevate political debate but to debauch it.
The purpose of calling someone a liar then was not merely to refute their ideas or arguments. It was to nullify them, to eliminate them from participation in politics.... This Obama campaign is saying, We don't want to compete with Mitt Romney. We want to obliterate him.
Henninger goes on to blame Paul Krugman's influence on the discourse, at least in part, for the unsettling turn of events.
It's worth noting that Henninger's piece is a little over the top. OK, more than a little. I'll gladly concede that "the L-word" is harsh, and isn't too common at the presidential level, but those who haven't heard it used in national politics since "fascist and totalitarian propaganda in the 1930s" need to get out more.
For that matter, Team Obama has begun using the word more, not to "obliterate" Romney or "eliminate" him from political participation, but for more mundane reasons -- they see Romney lying, repeatedly, and have decided to call him on it.
Media professionals watching the campaign have a choice: they can either (a) be outraged by a candidate basing much of his campaign on ugly, demonstrable falsehoods; or (b) be offended by a rival campaign calling lies "lies." Henninger prefers the latter; I think that's backwards.
Indeed, what I'd encourage observers to consider is the larger system of incentives. Imagine you're a candidate desperate to win, and you're prepared to do just about anything to advance your ambitions. You've decided the truth, integrity, and honesty are little more than collateral damage -- the ends justify the means.
You've also noticed that lying is easy to get away with, since the political establishment deems "the L-word" too harsh for polite discourse. You can repeat obvious falsehoods, but the media will be expected to stick to "he said, she said" reporting, and your opponents will be asked to stick to contemporary norms, steering clear of accusations that seem shrill.
Under this scenario, what incentives are there? If a candidate doesn't respect the electorate enough to be honest, and he or she cares more about votes than character, what's to stop that candidate from lying constantly?
The problem here isn't the Obama campaign's use of a word Daniel Henninger finds "unsettling"; the problem here is Mitt's Mendacity.