One of the more depressing articles of this political cycle popped up on Slate today, asking not why McCain’s campaign is outright lying about so many things in its political ads and messaging, but why Obama isn’t. Sure, it says, Obama’s stretching the truth here and there, but when someone notes facts, the Obama campaign amends the message. When the McCain people get caught in a lie, on the other hand, they more or less shrug and continue the lie, on the grounds that it’s working. And well, it is, as anyone who can read a poll can see. Therefore, since outright lying and distortion seems to be what people want, one has to wonder why Obama isn’t doing more of it.
As fantastically depressing as the thesis of the piece is, it points to a fact that is alas well in evidence, which is that the McCain campaign is the reductio ad absurdum of the GOP strategy that “facts are stupid things” — and that from the simple realpolitik point of view that winning isn’t just the important thing, it’s the only thing, it might be onto something. It’s a campaign that will lie and continue to lie when called on its lies because as far as it can tell it’s being rewarded for doing so. As the article notes, the GOP has spent the last several presidential cycles inculcating the idea to its partisans and to the public that truth is a relative thing and that an actual, verifiable fact can and should be discounted if it is presented by someone whose politics are not your own — and indeed the very act of pointing out facts is a suspicious activity in itself.
It’s entirely possible that McCain campaign will benefit from a critical mass of people — and not just dyed-in-the-wool, will-vote-Satan-into-office-if-he-wears-a-flag-pin Republicans — who have been primed by years of intentional and structural undermining of the legitimacy of fact, to accept bald-faced lying as just another tactic; people, in other words, who know that they are being lied to, know the lies are being repeated in the face of factual evidence, and know the campaign knows it is lying and plans to continue to do so all the way to the White House… and see that sort of stance as admirable. Can you blame McCain for taking advantage of this dynamic? Well, quite obviously, you can, and should. It’s one thing to imagine one’s self a “maverick” for speaking truth to power; it’s quite another thing to be a “maverick” by deciding to lie one’s way into power. However, it’s also amply clear that many who should blame him, or would be outraged by Obama lying in such a transparent and recurrent fashion, won’t.
And this is the interesting thing about this particular election cycle. I’m not suggesting that distortion and lying are new to this presidential election cycle (it goes back to at least the 1800 election, when Adams and Jefferson teed off on each other), and I’m not suggesting the Obama campaign is comprised of innocent does who would (gasp!) never stretch a truth for political gain. I am suggesting the McCain campaign is the first campaign, certainly in modern political history, that has decided that truth is entirely optional, and isn’t afraid to come right out and say it. And it’s working — and might well work all the way to the steps of the White House.
If it does, that will be an interesting political lesson for the GOP. It will be confirmation of the actual “Bush Doctrine” of “do and say whatever the hell you want, because no one has the will to stop you.” When there is no real-world penalty for lying, distorting and demonizing, then the only thing to stop you is your own moral compunctions. However, if McCain actually had any moral compunctions on this point, he wouldn’t be running the campaign he’s running now. And I would suggest that a man who shows no moral compunction in pursuit of power is not a man who will suddenly find those compunctions once he has power. An election is a job interview, people. If someone lies to you during a job interview, and says to you “yes, I’m lying, what of it?” when you catch them in the lie, and you hire them anyway, well. You shouldn’t be surprised at what comes next.
To go back to Obama and whether he should embrace the philosophy of flat-out lying, perhaps it makes sense for him to do so, but I certainly hope he doesn’t. Not because I think it’s better to have honor than power (although I don’t think it’s a bad thing to have honor rather than power) but because I believe that someone should be making the argument that one can win an election by something other than a willful determination to lie in people’s faces, and to encourage them to cheer those lies.
The fact of the matter is that at this point in the election, it’s not just about what positions the candidates hold on various political subjects. It’s also about how the candidates, and the parties behind, choose to see the people they intend to lead. The GOP and the McCain campaign, irrespective of its political positions, sees the American voter as deserving lies, lots of lies, repeated as often as necessary to win. And maybe they’re right about it. We’ll know soon enough.