Facts are stupid things."
Ronald Reagan misspoke, of course, when he said that at the 1988 Republican National Convention. He meant to quote John Adams' famous line, "Facts are stubborn things." And yet, over the past few years, the party that reveres St. Ronnie has morphed his slip of the tongue into a guiding principle: Facts can be stubborn all they want, but when they're inconvenient, they're free to be ignored, twisted and distorted, mangled and rejected – subservient to ideology.
Nowhere was that attitude more evident than in Tampa last month at the Republican National Convention, where Republicans turned lying into something of an art form. And then they bragged about it. "We're not going to let our campaign be dictated by fact-checkers," Romney pollster Neil Newhouse recently told the press.
And so we'll have an election in which truth has no purchase, in which President Barack Obama's opponents will be free to say that he subverted welfare reform to give your tax dollars to lazy, shiftless types, and stole from old ladies on Medicare to give free birth control to college sluts.
The entire first night of the RNC was built on blatant mendaciousness – the "you didn't build that" rhetoric – based on the statement Obama made that all entrepreneurs have had taxpayer help somewhere along the line, either through the government-created Internet or government-constructed roads and bridges or government-paid teachers who educated them; in Romney's interpretation, this equated to saying, "Steve Jobs didn't build Apple." On the convention's second evening vice presidential nominee Paul Ryan's jeremiad contained more whoppers than the neighborhood Burger King.
Ryan, for instance, blamed Obama for breaking a promise he never made to keep open a GM plant that closed before the president took office; faulted Obama for a credit downgrade that Standard & Poor's specifically blamed on Republicans' "political brinksmanship" over the debt ceiling in 2011; and accused Obama of "raiding" Medicare, which is untrue in itself, but is further confounded by the fact that the $716 billion in future cuts to which he's alluding are also in his own budget.
Sure, some corners of the media took umbrage, but, by and large, the mainstream press, ever so cognizant of being "balanced," was circumspect to the point of meaninglessness. The Associated Press invented the term "factual shortcuts" to describe Ryan's speech; NBC's Chuck Todd went with "perceived inaccuracies" that the Obama campaign "is trying to call attention to"; Glenn Kessler, the Washington Post's anointed fact-checker, penned an exercise in false equivalency titled "The truth? C'mon, this is a political convention"; the predictable Orlando Sentinel and Los Angeles Times played the he-said/she-said game with their headline, "Democrats: Paul Ryan 'lied' in convention speech." The story itself, by Times writer Lisa Mascaro, was no better: "Several of Ryan's key points hewed along the edges of factuality, and fact-checkers have been quick to pounce."
Hewed along the edges of factuality. Let that one rattle around your brain awhile.
Sadly, this is exactly how the Romney camp wanted this to play. The lies get lost in the jumble of a polarized media, of Fox News vs. MSNBC, of the Daily Kos vs. RedState vs. the talk radio echo chamber, of chickenshit newspaper editors and fact-checkers who worry so much about appearing "biased" that they bend over backward to pretend that both sides are equally to blame for everything. And the lies go on, the liars lying without penalty.
But it's more than the surrealism of a post-truth campaign that's killing our democracy. It's that the Republicans have, during the past four years, turned politics into a zero-sum game in which the ends always justify the means. So it's not just the Romney-Ryan campaign's pernicious lies, but also congressional Republicans' unprecedented obstruction and now the slew of voter ID laws in Florida and elsewhere, designed not to stamp out the nonexistent problem of voter fraud, but to, in the caught-on-tape admission of Pennsylvania House Majority Leader Mike Turzai "help Gov. Romney win."
As U.S. Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell famously declared in 2010, "The single most important thing we want to achieve is for President Obama to be a one-term president." Not jobs. Not a balanced budget. Not better schools or a cleaner environment or defeating al-Qaida. But total, absolute political victory.
At least he was being honest.
Truth, of course, has always been the first casualty of ambition. And the Obama campaign has hardly been blameless. But the president and his supporters' flirtations with mendacity have been just that – pushing the boundaries of context, cherry-picking numbers, etc. And those deserve to be denounced. For example: The Obama campaign's allegation that Romney opposes abortion even in cases of rape is wrong; Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid's assertion, made without any evidence beyond the word of an unnamed source, that Romney hadn't paid taxes for the last decade was rather galling, even if Romney's tax-related secrecy is nothing to celebrate; and a super PAC's connect-the-dots ad linking Romney to the death of the wife of a worker his company laid off struck a particularly sour note.
But where Obama has flirted, Romney has dropped trou and whipped his dick out. After declaring this summer that Obama should pull any ads to which fact-checkers object, he invented wholesale Obama's welfare policy in dog-whistling ads targeted to working-class whites. Fact-checkers howled, but Romneyland didn't care. The ads were working. One Republican pollster told the National Journal's Ron Fournier that "white working-class voters who backed Obama in 2008 have moved to Romney in recent weeks 'almost certainly because of the welfare ad. We're talking a point or two, but that could be significant.'"
As longtime Brookings Institute congressional scholar Thomas Mann, hardly a radical leftist, recently observed, "The Romney campaign has, as is strikingly evident at the Tampa convention, broken new ground in its brazen and cynical disregard for the truth."
This is no way for a democracy to function. Indeed, there's no way our democracy can function in such an environment. Our regime was designed specifically to curb factionalism and force a slow, deliberate legislative process. The consequences of Washington's failure lie all around us, in the warming climate and ballooning debt, in the fiscal cliff of spending cuts and tax hikes that await us at year's end, in the inability to pass a meaningful jobs bill the last two years even as employment lagged.
For once the media is right: Both sides are at fault, but for vastly different reasons.
For the last few years – indeed, for the last few decades – Democrats have lived in fear of their own shadows, allowing congressional Republicans, and the revanchist base that controls them, to dictate the terms of our debate.
Case in point: In his speech at the Democratic Nat-ional Convention, Massachusetts Gov. Deval Patrick had to remind party delegates, "It's time for Democrats to stiffen our backbone and stand up for what we believe." That's not the sort of thing you should hear at a pep rally. Rather, it's an acknowledgement of a longstanding problem.
And then there was Bill Clinton, whose rhetorical mastery perhaps overshadowed his most stinging indictment of Romney's budgetary callousness: the devastating Medicaid cuts. Medicaid, the program that helps the disabled, seniors in nursing homes and children with the misfortune of having been born to poor parents, would be gutted by more than a third – more than $800 billion – under the Romney-Ryan plan, dropping as many as 27 million people from its rolls.
This is a fundamentally moral issue about what kind of a society we want to be. And yet, until Clinton, we'd heard nary a word about it throughout the course of the campaign, or about the poor in general, lest Democrats be branded coddlers of an underclass of leeches.
That's a failure of leadership.
On some level, though, that finally seems to be changing. If you got the sense last week that Democrats had found their mojo, perhaps that's because they've finally decided to act like Democrats instead of shrinking violets. Perhaps it was borne of political desperation, but in recent months we've seen the president embrace gay marriage, granted a de facto amnesty to some young, undocumented immigrants, push an aggressive jobs agenda (which, of course, went nowhere), and forcefully begin to defend health care reform and the auto industry bailout. His convention speech last Thursday almost sounded like a defense of liberalism itself, though he didn't dare speak that l-word:
"This is the choice we now face. This is what the election comes down to. Over and over, we have been told by our opponents that bigger tax cuts and fewer regulations are the only way; that since government can't do everything, it should do almost nothing. … You know what? That's not who we are. That's not what this country's about. … We also believe in something called citizenship – a word at the very heart of our founding, at the very essence of our democracy; the idea that this country only works when we accept certain obligations to one another, and to future generations."
Whether you like the party's agenda or not, this is a good thing, a necessary thing if we're to have a meaningful conversation about our future these next two months. But that begets the question: Where were these guys the last three years?
If the modern Republican Party has invented its own reality – one in which climate change and evolution are myths and requiring people to purchase health insurance is socialism – Democrats by and large remain as feckless as they were when Karl Rove wiped the floor with them in the 2000s.
Give Obama credit: Health care reform, like it or not, was a monumental achievement. And those first two years – again, like it or not – were extraordinarily productive: the stimulus, Lilly Ledbetter, Don't Ask, Don't Tell, Dodd-Frank. But on messaging, his party got its ass kicked.
You saw in the half-hearted defense they've offered of Obamacare and Dodd-Frank, as if near-universal health care and Wall Street reform weren't things to be proud of. You saw it, too, in Obama's capitulations to the House Republicans' debt-ceiling hostage-taking last summer. The deficits the Republicans had so glibly run up in the 2000s on wars and tax cuts and entitlement expansions were now, in the aftermath of the largest worldwide recession in 70 years, our most pressing problem. They mattered so much, in fact, that House Republicans, led by Paul Ryan, threatened to send the world's teetering economy into a death spiral by defaulting on the country's debt, unless Obama agreed to their demands for spending cuts.
Obama caved. The Republicans said it wasn't enough. Obama offered dramatic entitlement cuts if only Republicans would throw revenue into the mix. The Republicans said no. We ended up with a bipartisan debt commission, whose plan the Ryan-led House Republicans spiked (and then, audaciously, Ryan chastised the president for not supporting).
All of this was wholly unnecessary, and in fact, counterproductive. Job growth slowed to a trickle. Standard & Poor's downgraded the country's credit rating. More importantly, as federal funds dried up, state and local governments laid off teachers, cops and firefighters: Public sector employment under the Obama administration has declined nearly 3 percent. At this point in the Reagan administration, public sector jobs had grown 3.1 percent. Three and a half years into George W. Bush's tenure, public sector employment had grown 4 percent.
Those are facts. But Democrats nonetheless spent the better part of 2011 cowering in fear of a new, ideologically pure Republican House. It took until nearly the end of the year for Obama to realize that people – at least those outside the Beltway circle-jerk – didn't give a damn about the debt in the middle of an economic crisis. And so we got a speech before Congress and the American Jobs Act in September 2011. But by then, with the election in full swing and Republicans still committed to stymieing anything the president put forward, it was dead on arrival.
That is, in a sense, the story of why this election is close. The Republicans' commitment to total victory was so ironclad that, even before Obama's first day in office, GOP congressional leaders were demanding of their rank and file unanimous, unbending opposition to anything he did, even if, as in the cases of cap and trade and health care reform, the president's proposals borrowed what were originally Republican ideas.
Meanwhile, the economy limped along, and the optimism that accompanied Obama's 2008 election dissipated into apathy, then to discontent, then to anxiety, battered by a recovery that felt like anything but.
Still, if you're a bettor, Obama's an odds-on favorite to win reelection. But then what?
Obama argues that if he wins, the Republican "fever" will break, and sanity and cooperation will prevail. There's absolutely no reason to believe he's correct. For one thing, the sociological evidence tells us that
America is increasingly polarizing, and elections are now just as often fought in ideologically rigid primaries as they are in November's contests. For another, obstruction worked. The Republicans took back the House, and might take the Senate this year. There's no incentive for Republicans to accommodate the president – or, for that matter, for congressional Democrats to accommodate a President Romney.
The economy will trudge along, slowly getting better, while big, long-term issues such as climate change, energy dependence and entitlements go unaddressed because they get filibustered and blockaded in Congress.
That's not a recipe for a new American century. That's a recipe for decline.
This is how democracy dies, the stinking, rotten fruit of a take-no-prisoners mentality in which no quarter can be given, no compromise can be brooked, ideological purity is exalted above pragmatism, and victory, no matter how or at what cost it comes, is the only thing that matters.
American politics has always been a messy business, full of underhanded tricks and scandalous accusations of depravity and distortions and lies – from Andrew Jackson being the "son of a common prostitute" to Thomas Jefferson being a "half-breed Indian squaw," to the more recent ugly episodes of Willie Horton and the Swift Boat Veterans for Truth. Politicians play to win. They always have.
And yet, what makes our political circumstance so despondent is the fact that the normal games and innuendos are accompanied by a collective inability to do anything – and an almost perverse joy when nothing gets done. When bad jobs numbers come in, Republicans react with near-glee.43 Winning is everything, after all.
If we can't get back where government actually worked, then what's left? At the very least, there's the truth. We can battle over actual ideas rather than simple caricatures, and then accept the consequences of elections rather than trying to bring the whole system down. We can be honest with ourselves about what's really happening, and look beyond the almost sociopathic desire to use other people's suffering and struggle as a way to gain points in a poll.
Facts are not stupid things. They are stubborn, but for that to even matter they need to be acknowledged. Deception cannot be tolerated, let alone rewarded. And that burden falls on all of us – politicians, the media, voters themselves. As long as facts are ignored and people can lie their way to power, nobody wins, not even the victors, and especially not the rest of us.
And that's the plain truth.