Obama and the L-Word
'Liar' is potent and ugly--with a sleazy political pedigree.
By Daniel Henninger, WSJ Opinion, October 10, 2012
The election campaign of the 44th U.S. president is now calling another candidate for the American presidency a "liar." This is a new low. It is amazing and depressing to hear this term being used as a formal strategy by people at the highest level of American politics.
"Liar" is a potent and ugly word with a sleazy political pedigree. But "liar" is not being deployed only by party attack dogs or the Daily Kos comment queue. Mitt Romney is being called a "liar" by officials at the top of the Obama re-election campaign. Speaking the day after the debate in the press cabin of Air Force One, top Obama adviser David Plouffe said, "We thought it was important to let people know that someone who would lie to 50 million Americans, you should have some questions about whether that person should sit in the Oval Office."
The Democratic National Committee's Brad Woodhouse said, "Plenty of people have pointed out what a liar Mitt Romney is." Deputy campaign manager Stephanie Cutter says Republicans "think lying is a virtue."
Explicitly calling someone a "liar" is—or used to be—a serious and rare charge, in or out of politics. It's a loaded word. It crosses a line. "Liar" suggests bad faith and conscious duplicity—a total, cynical falsity.
Politics isn't beanbag, but politicians past had all sorts of devices to say or suggest an opponent was playing fast and loose with the truth. This week's Obama TV ad, "How Can We Trust Mitt Romney?" would have been perfectly legit absent the Plouffe "liar" prepping.
This tack won't erode Mr. Romney's new support and may do damage to the president's candidacy. The polls aren't jumping around because Mitt Romney is a bamboozler. They're moving because the 2012 electorate is volatile. The first debate proved voters are looking for answers to their economic anxiety.Other than the fact that calling opponents liars is so natural to their politics, one wonders why the Obama people think this will have deep political resonance. The idea that they can make voters who live outside the political steam baths believe that a man running for the presidency would stand in front of 67 million people and literally "lie" about a proposal to change the federal tax code is ludicrous.
Every other time he talks, Barack Obama says "millionaires" should pay more taxes, when all his proposed tax increases clearly start at individual incomes of $200,000. That isn't a "lie." It's a president taking three steps to make a layup.
The Obama campaign's resurrection of "liar" as a political tool is odious because it has such a repellent pedigree. It dates to the sleazy world of fascist and totalitarian propaganda in the 1930s. It was part of the milieu of stooges, show trials and dupes. These were people willing to say anything to defeat their opposition. Denouncing people as liars was at the center of it. The idea was never to elevate political debate but to debauch it.
The purpose of calling someone a liar then was not merely to refute their ideas or arguments. It was to nullify them, to eliminate them from participation in politics. That's what is so unsettling about a David Axelrod or David Plouffe following accusations of dishonesty and lies with "whether that person should sit in the Oval Office." And that is followed by President Obama himself feeding the new line in stump speeches without himself ever using the L-word.
This Obama campaign is saying, We don't want to compete with Mitt Romney. We want to obliterate him.
How did it happen that an accusation once confined to the lowest, whiskey-soaked level of politics or rank propaganda campaigns is occurring daily in American politics?
No one has worked harder to revive this low-rent tactic than New York Times columnist Paul Krugman. To my knowledge, Mr. Krugman is the only columnist writing for a major publication in U.S. journalism who has so routinely and repetitively accused people of being liars.
It began with the charge that Bush lied about WMD and became almost banal in its repetition after that. In a September 2008 piece on the GOP convention, "Blizzard of Lies," the New York Times' heir to Reston, Wicker, Krock and Safire blew the floodgates: "they're all out-and-out lies"; "the blizzard of lies"; "a grotesque lie" and "the McCain campaign's lies." The Obama campaign is saying "Romney lied," because Paul Krugman made it the coin of their realm.
The L-word's strength is directly proportional to the rarity and appropriateness of its use. Today in our politics it is as skuzzily routine as the F-bomb has become among 15-year-old girls on the New York City subways. This is not progress.
It will be interesting which variation of "lie"—if any—comes out of Joe Biden's mouth in his debate with Paul Ryan. Mr. Biden comes from a political generation that could play rough, but it knew the limits of going too low at the presidential level. Or used to.