Forests vs. trees

As a political story, Mitt Romney’s offer of a $10,000 bet on Saturday night has a lot going for it. The story reinforces allegations that Romney is out of touch and unable to relate to middle-class anxieties; it comes at an awful time for Romney as Newt Gingrich surges; and perhaps best of all for the media, “Willard’s Wager” is amusing and easy to understand.

But as Greg Sargent noted this morning, there’s a better story that’s generated far less attention.

[W]hile the $10,000 moment is politically problematic and revealing in some ways, it doesn’t really deserve to rise to the level of national narrative. What’s more deserving of a national storyline about Romney is his serial dishonesty, his willingness to say and do anything to win. […]

More broadly, political reporters and commentators are always tempted to seize on such moments as the $10,000 bet as defining of a candidate’s character. But this moment is ultimately almost as trivial as was John Edwards’ $400 haircut…. This broader pattern [of dishonesty] is what deserves the status of national narrative about Romney’s character, not some throwaway line about a bet.

I don’t think there’s any doubt that Greg’s right about this. Romney and his team have demonstrated a willingness to lie — blatantly and shamelessly — with discomforting ease. We’ve seen this in offensive campaign ads, routine talking points, policy arguments, and even personal anecdotes and characteristics. The former governor seems to have an allergy to the truth.

When pressed, Team Romney has responded, more than once, that niceties such as facts, evidence, and reason just aren’t that important to them. This, in and of itself, seems like a wildly important story, which generally goes overlooked.

So why does “10,000 bucks” get picked up far and wide, while “Romney has a problem telling the truth” doesn’t? If I had to guess, I’d say it probably has to do with the media’s comfort — or in some cases, its lack thereof — with various narratives. Establishment news outlets don’t mind saying Romney is an out-of-touch elitist, but they do mind saying he’s an uncontrollable liar. The former just doesn’t seem especially harsh, so it’s well within the confines of polite discourse. The latter may be demonstrably fair and bolstered by ample evidence, but the media remains reluctant to go there.

But in terms of what deserves to be a major campaign narrative — the wager vs. the dishonesty — it’s not even a close contest.