How Do You Debate a Liar?

On Thursday night, CNN hosted a town hall meeting with Beto O’Rourke, Democratic candidate for the senate in Texas. It was supposed to include his opponent, Ted Cruz, but the Republican refused to participate. In a sane world, that should have spoken volumes to the voters in Texas.

There was one exchange during the discussion that stood out to me. It is captured in the first couple of minutes of this video clip:

Dana Bash asked O’Rourke why he confronted Cruz about being a liar during a previous debate. The news coming out of that one was that O’Rourke had switched gears and gone negative, which indicates the kind of bias we often encounter in the media. Cruz has been on the attack since day one of this campaign, which seems to be in line with what reporters expect. But if O’Rourke calls him out, he is chastised for going negative.

O’Rourke’s response to Bash highlighted the dilemma Democrats face in dealing with an opposition that feels no constraints when it comes to honesty. He has built a campaign around bringing people together based on their common aspirations rather than their fears. But as he explains, when Cruz does nothing but lie about his positions, it confuses voters and so he had to make a decision about whether or not to spend the entire debate debunking the lies—and thereby giving his opponent the ability to control the agenda—or simply call him out for being a liar. O’Rourke decided to do the latter, knowing that it would be interpreted as going negative.

I was reminded of why Barack Obama lost the first debate with Mitt Romney in 2012. Obama reports being taken off guard that Romney lied shamelessly about his previous positions, and failed to call him out on it. That was a serious mistake that some feared might cost Obama the election.

Mitt Romney was never one to be constrained by the truth, as Steve Benen so meticulously chronicled with his ongoing series titled, “Mitt’s Mendacity.” Obama eventually found his footing on that and began to suggest that his opponent suffered from “Romnesia.”

That is a perfect example of how a little bit of creativity and humor can go a long way. It’s why, in the race between Cruz and O’Rourke, the ads developed by Richard Linklater are so effective. When your opponent is being ridiculous, it’s never a bad thing to point and laugh. Taking them seriously gives their absurdity an air of validity.

It is obvious that simply ignoring the lies is the worst possible response. O’Rourke’s attempt to paint Cruz as a liar was an improvement, but still left a lot of confusion in the air about his positions. But he was also right to be concerned that an effort to call out every lie individually would mean allowing his opponent to control the agenda. Ted Cruz is very aware of that when he spouts a whole litany of lies. It creates a narrative that would take hours to debunk and put O’Rourke on the defensive in the process.

Of course, none of this is unique to the senate race between Cruz and O’Rourke. With their Liar-in-Chief ensconced in the Oval Office, Republicans have taken this all to a whole new level. As someone who writes about politics on a daily basis, I am aware of the fact that I could devote every piece I publish to debunking the lies and still not scratch the surface of covering them all. That is the world we’re living in when one political party and their enablers in right wing media have completely abandoned any pretense of telling the truth. Democrats are going to have to come up with some creative ways of breaking through in this environment.

Nancy LeTourneau

Nancy LeTourneau is a contributing writer for the Washington Monthly.