Blazing New Trails

This morning, after publishing a “fact-checking” piece on Paul Ryan’s acceptance speech, WaPo’s earnest wonk Ezra Klein felt compelled to pen a subsequent column noting that something really new is going on with the Romney/Ryan campaign:

The Republican ticket, when it comes to talking about matters of policy and substance, has some real problems – problems that have nothing to do with whether you like their ideas. Romney admits that his tax plan “can’t be scored” and then he rejects independent analyses showing that his numbers don’t add up. He says — and Ryan echoes — that he’ll bring federal spending down to 20 percent of GDP but refuses to outline a path for how well get there. He mounts a massive ad assault based on a completely discredited lie about the Obama administration’s welfare policy. He releases white papers quoting economists who don’t agree with the Romney campaign’s interpretations of their research.

All this is true irrespective of your beliefs as to what is good and bad policy, or which ticket you prefer. Quite simply, the Romney campaign isn’t adhering to the minimum standards required for a real policy conversation. Even if you bend over backward to be generous to them — as the Tax Policy Center did when they granted the Romney campaign a slew of essentially impossible premises in order to evaluate their tax plan — you often find yourself forced into the same conclusion: This doesn’t add up, this doesn’t have enough details to be evaluated, or this isn’t true.

I don’t like that conclusion. It doesn’t look “fair” when you say that. We’ve been conditioned to want to give both sides relatively equal praise and blame, and the fact of the matter is, I would like to give both sides relatively equal praise and blame. I’d personally feel better if our coverage didn’t look so lopsided. But first the campaigns have to be relatively equal. So far in this campaign, you can look fair, or you can be fair, but you can’t be both.

I’ve probably recalled the anecdote before about the time some friends of mine were working for a state agency that ran a competitive grant program which was scrupulously meritocratic and quantitative. On one occasion, they just knew there was an application near and dear to the hearts of our ultimate boss, the governor. Very late one night, they were all staring at a huge spreadsheet on somebody’s office floor, crunching numbers and recalculating rounding adjustments and generally trying very hard to get the governor’s project just over the finish line. Suddenly one of them shouted: “I’ve got it!” They all stopped and waited for the Big Reveal. “We can just lie!”

She was joking, but the story illustrates the line the Romney/Ryan campaign has so clearly and definitively crossed. Sure, all campaigns stretch the facts and look at them sideways and place their values and policies in the best possible light and their opponents’ in the worst. But blatant, systematic lying–on small matters like budget assumptions and plant closing dates, and on big matters like your basic attitude towards large, popular federal programs–really does change the game and makes it a lot easier for everyone other than the frustrated “neutral” observers who know what you’re up to but struggle to find words to describe it without appearing “partisan.”

Why is this happening? My theory is simple: Paul Ryan is a truly radical ideologue who is used to disguising his radicalism; that’s how someone who still seems to leaf through a dogeared copy of Atlas Shrugged for inspiration has survived so long. And Mitt Romney is, even according to his friends and admirers, a chameleon who has constantly changed his policies and rhetoric to reflect the changing contexts in which he was trying to “succeed,” his supreme “value.”

When Romney chose Ryan as his running-mate, we all had theories of what this surprising move represented. It didn’t occur to me, anyway, that the real bond between the two men was a practiced affinity for lying about themselves and their opponents without any apparent moral struggle: Romney because he truly does think himself uniquely capable to serve as president (his campaign slogan should probably be Pontius Pilate’s announcement of Christ upon delivering him to “justice:” Ecce Homo!); Ryan because he aims at liberating the American people from the far greater “lies” of collectivism and altruism.

They’re quite the ticket, and they are blazing new trails in brimstone for American politics.

Ed Kilgore

Ed Kilgore, a Monthly contributing editor, is a columnist for the Daily Intelligencer, New York magazine’s politics blog, and the managing editor for the Democratic Strategist.