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Romney Keeps Changing Rules On What's Allowed In Campaign Ads

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Mitt Romney's made it pretty clear that he intends to keep making hay over the trumped-up claim that the Obama administration is tacitly weakening welfare-to-work requirements by granting states waivers that facilitate greater "flexibility administering it so they can experiment with ways to improve the number of people making the jump from government assistance to jobs."

The GOP is playing this as a cynical, election-year move intended to rally Obama's base. Yesterday, House Speaker John Boehner enunciated this, telling reporters, "Why would he do it, you know, 90 days, 85 days before the election? I'll let you answer that one."

The Democrats -- and Chris Matthews -- counter that the GOP is demagoging this issue in a racially tinged way to rally its base. If you're looking for a referee's call, consider the fact that the Obama campaign has not actually gone out of its way to tout these waivers -- which Republican governors sought, by the way -- as a campaign issue, whereas the Romney campaign joyfully enthuses about their welfare ads being their "most effective ad."

But for all the effectiveness, Romney's attempts to paint Obama as a dismantler of welfare reform have famously run afoul of the fact-checking industry, to which Romney isn't paying a scintilla of mind. As Ben Smith reported earlier today, Romney ad strategist Ashley O'Connor pollster Neil Newhouse told an ABC/Yahoo News forum today, "Fact-checkers come to this with their own sets of thoughts and beliefs, and we’re not going to let our campaign be dictated by fact-checkers."

In many ways, this dovetails with a previous pronouncement from the Romney campaign on what everyone should expect from it, in terms of ads. As "a top operative in Mitt Romney’s 2012 presidential campaign" told the New York Times' Thomas Edsall back in December 2011:

“First of all, ads are propaganda by definition. We are in the persuasion business, the propaganda business…. Ads are agitprop…. Ads are about hyperbole, they are about editing. It’s ludicrous for them to say that an ad is taking something out of context…. All ads do that. They are manipulative pieces of persuasive art.”

At the time, that was offered as justification for an ad in which Romney's team took a 2008-era statement from Obama, “Senator McCain’s campaign actually said, and I quote, ‘If we keep talking about the economy, we’re going to lose,’” truncated it to "If we keep talking about the economy, we're going to lose," and made it look like Obama was speaking contemporaneously, about the 2012 campaign.

Then the Romney campaign waited to see if anyone figured out what it had done. (It was not a long wait.) All in all, 'twas a keen bit of "agitprop," fitting all the descriptors cited to Edsall, especially the "ludicrous" and "manipulative" parts.

Surveying the landscape today, Greg Sargent notes that Romney wants to play by a different set of rules than his opponent:

Reading this brought to mind Romney’s own remarks about fact-checking and political advertising not long ago. Needless to say, he has a different standard for the Obama campaign:

“You know, in the past, when people pointed out that something was inaccurate, why, campaigns pulled the ad,” Romney said on the radio. “They were embarrassed. Today, they just blast ahead. You know, the various fact-checkers look at some of these charges in the Obama ads and they say that they’re wrong, and inaccurate, and yet he just keeps on running them.”

Sargent says that this insistence on a double-standard is going to "pose a test to the news media and our political system." (And it cuts both ways -- Team Obama Re-Elect*, having tried to hang the death of a woman around Romney's neck, drew understandable fire from the media for its obvious exaggerations.) One recommendation, for reporters: Stop citing fact-checkers and their verdicts. Familiarize yourself with the facts, keep your sources at the ready, and make this policing part of your job.

*DISCLAIMER: I have taken the position that ads created by candidate-affiliated super PACs are not distinct from the ads created by the campaign itself, and I explicitly reject the notion that the super PACs and the campaigns are not coordinating with one another.

[CORRECTION: This post has been edited to reflect that a statement by Romney pollster Neil Newhouse was mis-attributed to Ashley O'Connor. I regret the error.]

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