Candidates discovered this year that they’d pay no penalty for campaign lies, distortions and deceptions. Because that’s what people want to hear — as long as it’s about politicians we love to hate. Too many of us prefer to get what we call news from blogs, Tweets and cable news channels that pander to partisans to get ratings.
Campaign 2012 just set a new record for campaign ad negativity. Lies abound. Distortion is the norm; deception an art form. Accuracy is as rare as a found artifact. According to a Wesleyan Media Project study, 86 percent of President Barack Obama’s ads and 79 percent of Mitt Romney’s ads were negative. (That’s a big increase from 2008, when Obama and John McCain spent 69 percent of their ad budgets on negative ads; and 2004, when George W. Bush and John Kerry spent 58 percent on negative ads.)
So there are multiple lessons we must learn about the shortcomings and failures of all the players: the politicos, the journalists who cover them, and the people (see also: voters) who encourage and even implore candidates to do what we used to deplore.
First, let’s review the lowlights of the campaign’s biggest whoppers, distortions and deceptions.
Especially, the Republican demonization of “Obamacare”: This carefully conceived deceit began when conservative schemers successfully conned frustrated and easily manipulated folks who flocked to Tea Party rallies by denouncing as liberal the mandate that all must buy health insurance.
But the media glossed over this: The mandate was an idea incubated in the conservative Heritage Foundation think tank in the Clinton years as a Republican alternative to the liberal’s desire for a single-payer government program. Conservative Republicans embraced it. Romney used it for his Massachusetts health plan.
Obama, who had opposed the mandate, reluctantly accepted it to appeal to Republicans — it was the only way even Romney could assure that no one could be rejected for a pre-existing condition. Then, like a precision drill team, congressional Republicans unanimously about-faced and attacked Obama’s mandate as a liberal evil. Their audiences cheered, ignorant of the fact that their conservative heroes had championed the mandate. They just loved to hate anything tied to Obama.
Meanwhile, Obama’s Democratic ad makers did their own distorting as they cherry-picked hundreds of transactions by Romney’s Bain Capital private equity company. Democrats magnified outcomes that closed plants and cut jobs. They ignored those that created famous companies such as Staples, The Sports Authority and Burger King.
Campaign 2012 ended with a national security controversy in which Team Romney didn’t have to take the lead, because Fox News Channel was on the case. Famous for sometimes mixing right-wing invective with its journalism, Fox raised valid questions about the killing of U.S. Ambassador to Libya Christopher Stevens in an attack on the consulate at Benghazi. And the White House failed to put out facts promptly about what it knew and why Obama and others asserted it might have started as a protest about an anti-Muslim video that spun out of control. Republicans pounced and denounced.
But lost in that was that for days after the attack, Obama’s daily CIA intelligence briefers had told him it could have begun as a protest — but it turned out there wasn’t one at the consulate. Republicans kept blasting Obama and never criticized the official responsible for that intelligence: their longtime hero, CIA director and retired Gen. David Petraeus.
Then Fox aired what appeared to be a big scoop: that when the attack began, CIA agents nearby requested permission to try to save the ambassador but were ordered to stand down. Republicans rushed to blast Obama. The Fox scoop had a big hole in it: The CIA explained it told its team to wait — just 20 minutes — to coordinate with a Libyan militia patrolling the consulate. Soon CIA agents were on their way. Sadly, the effort failed.
It is easy to now read all this and denounce those who are way too eager to hate those on the other side. We like to say we aren’t like that. But wait: How often have you passed along gleefully an emailed Internet political accusation filled with invective and based on distortion or a downright lie?
And when was the last time your newspaper or television news made clear in a page one headline or prime-time TV report that a candidate’s TV ad seen by millions was a blatant distortion?
Candidates will never stop lying, distorting or deceiving until we all do our jobs — and make sure they pay a penalty when they try to con their way to victory.
Martin Schram writes political analysis for Scripps Howard News Service.