Just saying whatever

It was the lie of the year.

Near the end of the 2012 presidential campaign, Mitt Romney accused Barack Obama of helping Chrysler send American jobs to China.

Like so many political tales, it carried a smidgen of truth.

But a glaring lack of clarity.

Chrysler, which had been acquired by an Italian firm after the auto bailout, was considering a move to China. But only to build Jeeps in China for sales in China.

Despite Chrysler’s admonitions to Romney that U.S. jobs would hold firm, the campaign doubled down. It launched a “Jeeps made in China” ad – repeating the erroneous twist. Romney’s aides defended the ad as literally accurate – Chrysler was expanding in China.

Fact-checker called the ad a “pants on fire” deception. (It was later deemed the “lie of the year.”) Said Politifact: “And they stood by the claim, even as the media and the public expressed collective outrage against something so obviously false.”

In Romney’s mind, perhaps, it was retaliation.

“You know, in the past, when people pointed out that something was inaccurate, why, campaigns pulled the ad,” the GOP candidate had said earlier. “They were embarrassed. Today, they just blast ahead. You know, the various fact-checkers look at some of these charges in the Obama ads and they say that they’re wrong, and inaccurate, and yet he just keeps on running them.”

Indeed, if they were ever worn, at some point the campaign’s gloves came off. “We’re not going to let our campaign be dictated by fact-checkers,” Romney pollster Neil Newhouse famously said in August 2012.

Contrast that with local public servants – Romney and Obama supporters alike – agonizing over dotting the i’s and crossing the t’s on their budgets and grant applications and volunteer appreciation dinners. Facts, we don’t need no stinkin’ facts?

Or shall we blame the fact-checkers. Recently, Republicans touted a George Mason University study that shows Republicans are cited as dishonest by Politifact far more often than Democrats. The conservative Media Research Center complained that Politifact’s “Pants on Fire” page was displaying 18 lies by Republicans or conservatives, and only two by liberals or Democrats.

An eyebrow-raiser, for sure. But maybe try this. Don’t say things that are “pants on fire” lies.

What a concept.

Yes, big time politicians of all persuasions lie. They lie to protect themselves, to shade things, or to gain an advantage when rewards outweigh the risk.

Legend has it that a young Democrat named Lyndon B. Johnson once encouraged aides to spread the outrageous rumor that his opponent slept with pigs. “Make him deny it,” was Johnson’s logic.

Even in the most informed democracy, there’s no guarantee voters will reward the truth. Thankfully, though, there are vague boundaries on deceptions. Today, some Republicans concede that Romney crossed the line – to his own harm – with “Jeeps made in China.”

For Democratic strategist James Carville it was never in doubt. Shortly after the election, Carville was interviewed by progressive journalist Tim Dickinson, and they agreed that late in the campaign Romney “started lying flamboyantly.”

Carville was asked: “Where does that come from? Is it marketing – just going where the market is?”

Carville’s answer has stayed with me since:

“It’s all about ‘We’re doing the country a favor – we know how to lead the country. And in politics, everybody’s got to say things, so we’ll just say whatever we’ve got to say, and that’s the way it is.’ Deep down in Romney’s heart, some inner recesses of whatever, he just doesn’t think that truth-telling is a big part of the whole thing.”

Carville’s answer was hardly kind. Still, he could have said something more derogatory. His statement was directed towards Romney, but it was also universal.

Politics is more than truth; politicians of all persuasions may lie. Thanks to Carville, I’ve grasped something else. They’re entitled to deceive.

It’s like a currency. You and I get paychecks, or Social Security, or Medicare, and that’s our entitlement, our currency.

As voters, we’re umpires, looking for clarity from candidates who often have little interest in clarity. They’ll kick sand in our faces, if it serves the purpose.

That’s their currency.

It’s not mean-spirited, necessarily. It’s because they believe they know what’s best.

They’re entitled to say whatever.

God help us.

Jim Anderson’s email address is