“Big Debate” Versus “Big Lies”

Mike Tomasky at Daily Beast and Greg Sargent at WaPo’s Plum Line are very determined this morning to bat down the idea that in choosing Paul Ryan for Veep, the Romney campaign has signaled its eagerness to make the election a “big debate” over the challenges facing the country. The proof, they both say, is that the newly minted Romney/Ryan campaign has undertaken a barrage of highly mendacious communications that are designed to obscure rather the debate the big questions, forcing the opposition (in the absence of MSM refereeing) to become one vast and constant truth squad.

I certainly need no persuading about the GOP presidential campaign’s lying ways. But I do dispute the premise that up until now everybody understood the Ryan choice as representing a “Big Debate” or “Big Choice” strategy. My reaction at the time was that the Ryan selection was most likely a sop to the conservative movement to get them off Romney’s back and regain some tactical flexibility. Yes, it most definitely indicated a realization that Romney’s original plan to run on the emptiest, most superficial message imaginable (basically aimed at making Mitt an acceptable risk for voters who had already rejected Obama) hadn’t worked (in no small part because Romney’s own biographical case for the presidency was falling apart) and was the source of constant and ever-escalating complaints from the Right. This was a major strategic concession to an Obama campaign that badly needed to change the election from a “referendum” to a “choice.” But did that mean Republicans were consigned to offering an “honest choice?” Of course not.

Where this can sometimes get confusing, however, is in the epistemology of “honesty.” To cite the most obvious example, Romney’s barrage of ads accusing Obama of “gutting” welfare reform is, to use the technical term for it, a pack of lies. It’s basically made up, with one or two specious footnotes from ideological warhorses like Heritage’s Robert Rector who are undoubtedly thrilled their longtime backwater issue of welfare policy is suddenly in the center of a presidential campaign.

But to conservative ideologues who have wanted a “choice” election as badly as have Obama supporters, these lies are “true” on some “deeper level,” in that they would fall down and start bleeding from the ears if they lost the unshakable belief that Barack Obama is a sinister Alinsky disciple determined to make the federal government a vast machine of redistribution from good people to bad people. I mean, seriously, folks: a large proportion of conservative “base” activists think or at least suspect that people like me and thee are savages who want to legalize infanticide, outlaw religion, and take away their guns, all in the pursuit of stealing their hard-earned money and sharing it with deadbeats whose votes we are buying. In the context of that belief system, how much “evidence” do you need that Obama is gutting welfare reform? Not a lot.

So you can very accurately say the Romney/Ryan campaign is serving up plate after plate of deliberate, despicable lies, and also say they are giving the troops whose precise turnout rate is critical to the outcome what they want to hear and “honestly” believe. It helps that if deployed cleverly, such lies are also persuasive to low-information undecided voters, particularly non-college-educated white folk who assume all politicians are lying most of the time.

Is it possible a “big debate” could break out at some point? Yes, thanks to the specificity of Paul Ryan’s budget and ideological history and Romney’s many promises to toe the conservative movement’s line, some real interaction could occur. But it won’t be easy to produce, and no, it’s not at all what the Romney/Ryan team seems to have in mind.

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.