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Let Team Romney BS You About Nevada, Just Not About Tax Cuts

As the presidential race has tightened, my fellow liberals have taken to complaining about the Republican penchant for inventing facts. “[T]hey’re constructing an opposite reality,” groused Mike Tomasky after Monday’s debate. “They say something and try to make it so, and the media go for it time and time again.”

I don’t disagree, but it’s worth pointing out that all opposite realities aren’t created equally. Indeed, with so much reality-construction going on in the homestretch, the relevant question isn’t whether the reality-construction is happening at all. It’s which types we should sweat and which types we should greet with condescending laughter. I can’t help feeling liberals have gotten a bit muddled on this point. 

To simplify a bit, there are basically two types of bullshitting that take place in campaigns. The first is about the state of the race—call it horse-race spinning—and, in recent days, the Romney campaign has approached this task with particular gusto. Campaign officials and other GOP operatives have boasted about once-unimaginable electoral-map possibilities, like Pennsylvania. They’ve crowed about seemingly safe Obama states like New Hampshire and Nevada suddenly tilting their way. They talk about victory as though it’s assured and rhapsodize about landslide margins. “We’re going to win,” a top Romney aide told Politico after the debate. “Seriously, 305 electoral votes.”

Tomasky and his readers believe the task of rebutting these claims deserves special urgency. “These next two or three days will be crucial,” he wrote, “and if the Democrats do seem fearful and reactive, they’ll help the new [conventional wisdom] congeal and maybe help seal a fate that the facts don’t yet come close to foreordaining.”

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And yet it’s hard to believe that this sort of horse-race spinning will amount to much in the end. Others have pointed out that the Bushies engaged in a similar confidence-game in 2000—going so far as to send the candidate to California in the campaign’s closing days to project inevitability. This example is generally adduced as a cautionary tale. But, so far as I can tell, the only thing the tactic got Bush was a popular-vote defeat and an unexpected nail-biter in the Electoral College. 

At best, the perception that Romney is headed to victory may boost Republican enthusiasm and, therefore, turnout. But, as Ezra Klein points out, it will probably also increase Democratic turnout, since Democrats are struggling to overcome complacency among key voting blocs, like young people and Hispanics. (Not for nothing has the Obama campaign begun sending supporters emails with openers like, “I don’t want to lose this election.”) More likely, it will have no effect at all given the proliferation of widely-followed stats nerds such as Nate Silver and Mark Blumenthal. Unlike 2000, it now takes a half-sentient reporter all of 30 seconds to see that a campaign’s horse-race spin is just that. Just today, the Times ran a helpful if hardly revelatory story on how the Electoral College remains “the biggest obstacle facing [Romney’s] campaign.”

But there is one analogy with 2000 that should set off alarm bells among liberals, and it has to do with a second category of campaign bullshit. This breed of BS is about what kind of president a candidate would make—what policies they would push, what issues they would prioritize, where they would situate themselves along the ideological spectrum. I’d refer to this type of spin as “packaging.” The Republicans did a masterful job packaging Bush in 2000—insisting, contrary to the most relevant evidence (i.e., his stated policies), that he was a moderate. It was arguably the single most important factor in the race. 

Could it happen again? Well, as in 2000, we have a candidate proposing a huge, regressive tax cut while insisting it’s modest and progressive. Romney, a la Bush, has also recently asserted that he favors a variety of moderate-sounding policies—like strong protections for patients with pre-existing conditions and a 2014 withdrawal from Afghanistan—even though these assertions are at odds with his previous positions, some of which he affirmed only a few weeks beforehand. 

The good news is that a lot has changed since 2000. Back then, there were only a handful of outlets dedicated to calling bullshit when they saw it—TNR and a few other lefty magazines, along with a handful of columnists like Paul Krugman and E.J. Dionne. Today there’s a whole cable network (MSNBC) dedicated to this stuff, dozens of popular liberal blogs, and in-house fact-checkers at most major newspapers, all of whom have been fairly good (if not great) at adjudicating these questions. 

Likewise, in 2000, the Bush campaign didn’t merely sell its version of the truth. It also made Gore out to be a liar. This crippled his ability to question Bush’s record. (The strategy was very explicit. In his book on the campaign, Bush media strategist Stuart Stevens referred to it as “blowing up the aircraft carrier instead of shooting down planes”—the planes being individual allegations from Gore and the aircraft carrier being his credibility. Stevens is, of course, Romney’s top strategist this time around.) Meanwhile, the press played right into Bush's hand, running stories about Gore’s dubious invention of the Internet and trumped up claims about his dog’s arthritis medicine. Fortunately, the Romney campaign has had little success tagging Obama with the serial exaggerator label in 2012.

Still, even if some in the old media have been chastened—the Times is especially good at working factual debunkings of policy claims into its coverage—the rest of the campaign media leaves much to be desired. Outside of one fact-checking piece, Politico alluded to Romney’s tax cut plan in six different post-Denver-debate stories without addressing the substance of Romney’s claims a single time. Instead, the stories typically covered the back-and-forth over the proposal as irresolvable (“the quibbling over numbers aside…” went one segue) or of purely tactical interest (Romney had reason to tone down the tax-cut talk, another story observed, because the “'tax cuts for the rich' message polls poorly with centrists”). And I hate to single out Politico. Many of the pundits up and down the cable dial are much, much worse. 

Suffice it to say, this is the sort of enabling behavior Tomasky and other liberals are right to go nuts over. The campaign media could never produce another story on tactics and the social consequences would be negligible. Everyone one of us is going to find out who won the election on the morning of November 7. But if enough of the media refuses to sort out substantive claims, how many of us will walk into the voting booth November 6 knowing what it is we’re actually voting for? And which recently reinvented candidate do you suspect is banking on that to happen? 

Update: The endlessly endearing Bob Somerby raises two points that are worth responding to. First, he writes, "Try not to laugh at Scheiber’s claim that TNR was 'dedicated to calling bullshit' in Campaign 2000. For better or worse, it wasn’t." Um, yes, we were. I went back and counted a good ten pieces by Jon Chait from 2000 about how Bush was a radical on tax cuts and Social Security, despite his attempts to portray himself as a moderate. One typical piece was subtitled, "George W. Bush, likable extremist." (If memory serves, that was a cover story, and the cover image was a cartoon of a shifty-looking Bush under the headline: "He's Lying: Why W. Is Not a Moderate," or some such.) It's true that the weekly TRB column was written by Andrew Sullivan, then in his high-Tory/supply-side phase, but the editorial drift of the magazine was very clear. We had a number of unsigned editorials and "notebook items"--a kind of proto-blog published in the magazine each week--skewering Bush along the same lines Chait did. (I know this first hand: I wrote a few of the notebook items and fact-checked many more of them, as well as the editorials.) Believe me, the Bush campaign did not consider us sympathetic. 

Second, Somerby says it wasn't the Bush campaign that branded Gore a liar. The mainstream press accomplished that by itself. This is fair enough. The idea of Gore as a chronic exaggerator definitely was a press meme long before the Bushies got a hold of it. See, for example, this Chicago Tribune piece, which examines the origins of Gore's claim to have inspired the movie "Love Story," which he in fact never quite claimed, notwithstanding the media narrative to the contrary. I do think it's fair to say, however, that the Bushies picked up the Gore meme and exploited it relentlessly, per the Stuart Stevens quote above.