Tuesday, August 7, 2012

Lies, damned lies, and Harry Reid

Almost none of my liberal friends liked my Monday column for The Philly Post, in which I took Harry Reid to task for his apparent lies about Mitt Romney's taxes. The best response came from a friend via email:
Eh, you're not making the sale with me on this one.  I think you're too enamored with "civility" in general.   The Republicans' and Rove's treatment of Clinton, Kerry and Obama just isn't in even the same moral universe as alleging that (someone said that) Romney didn't pay taxes.  And what these Republicans stand for--in terms of policy--is just morally wrong, so I don't much care how we oppose it, as long as it's legal and it gets the job done. 
Here, he quotes from my column: "But if we’re now at a point where we openly and knowingly root for our side to do a better job of lying to and misleading the public better than the other guys can, well, then, the game is over. Governance will have little relationship to the truth, and that will mean that democracy is all but done for. And Harry Reid? He’s helping dig the grave with every unsubstantiated comment he makes about Mitt Romney’s taxes."
I don't think anyone has any illusions about what Reid's gambit is, and nobody would mistake it for "governance."  If there were any connection between habitual lying and the persistence of democracy, we'd all have been done for from day one.  And if we have to submit to a tax policy like Romney's proposing, many of us will be a lot closer to actual, rather than metaphorical, graves.      
I think it's possible I'm overly enamored with civility, sure, though much less than I was four years ago. It does remain important to me, to some extent, because I'm a liberal who went to a conservative college, grew up in a conservative state, and have lots of conservative friends. But civility isn't really my concern here. Truth is.

But as my friend points out, untruths--lies, let's call them--are the currency of politics, and it has ever been thus. Does it really reduce our ability to, you know, govern?

I think so. One reason President Obama and Republicans have been unable to compromise on issues like the debt ceiling is because both parties have reasonably different visions of government and its functions. There's a lot of substance that divides the two sides. But that's always been the case, yet that division is much more meaningful these days--nominees can't get confirmed, budgets can't get passed, etc.

Part of the reason why, I suspect, is because so many Republican voters believe that Obama is a socialist Kenyan Muslim--somebody who is so dangerous and "other" that a deal cannot and should not be made, because he is almost literally the devil. Substance divides us, in other words, but lies clutter up the demilitarized zone where deals can be made and government allowed to function.

Beyond that, I think marinating our politics in lies is simply corrosive, bad on its own terms. I realize that makes me naive, and not at all savvy at the Machiavellian game that so many folks play, but, well, I can live with that.

Is turnabout fair play, as some of my correspondents suggest? Is it so important that Romney be defeated that such tactics are justified? In the former case, I guess it depends on what you care about. In the latter case, if you're justifying such tactics because of the substance of Mitt's tax policy, why not make the attack on Mitt's tax policy? There's certainly plenty of grist for that particular mill.

I get it: Part of politics is defining your opponent negatively, and there are almost no limits on that. I still can't support Reid's tactics. Maybe it's because of my background: I've never been a professional political advocate; I spent most of my career as a daily newspaper reporter who wasn't allowed to root for either political party. I won't claim I was the best reporter that ever worked, but I had my moments. And what I cared about mostly in those days was the truth of a story--not about who won. And I hated it when people lied to me. That hasn't changed. If I have to choose between Obama and Romney this November, I'll vote for Obama. But I'm not a fan of lies, distortions, and McCarthy-style tactics no matter where they come from, and I'll point them out whenever I see them. 

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