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Jared Bernstein Headshot

You Can't Fool All the People All the Time

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Truth appears to be on an extended holiday, but with about fifty days left in this election cycle, this isn't the time for handwringing.

What's the best strategy when your opponent lies? It's not a simple question. The obvious move is to call them on it, but analyses of viewers reveals that "he said, she said" arguments leave observers confused and apathetic. "There they go again," seems to be the reaction, and they tune out the substance of the debate. This hurts us a lot more than them, because we need the electorate to focus on substance; they need them to focus on nonsense.

It helps if there's a referee to cry foul when the lies are proffered, but the media has been inconsistent at best, compelled to feign "balance" even when doing so means implicitly endorsing the lies.

Like this Wednesday AM, when I made the mistake of turning on CNN, where I witnessed a series of intense arguments and interviews about lipstick-gate, including the clip from the speech in which Obama made the lipstick comment, with not a hint, of course, of what the speech was about.

Let's just pause for a moment here and look at this moment under a microscope. It is one of the best examples of Rovian politics I've ever witnessed. This is the sentence in question--the one that ended with the "lipstick on a pig" comment:

"John McCain says he's about change too. And so I guess his whole angle is: 'Watch out, George Bush. Except for economic policy, health care policy, tax policy, education policy, foreign policy, and Karl Rove-style politics, we're really going to shake things up in Washington!'"

Now, it's clear that the McCain strategy has shifted from stressing "experience" and "country first"--both causalities of his choice of Palin for his running mate--to the old Rovian move of hitting your opponent where he's strongest, in this case co-opting Obama's message of change (re Kerry, they swift-boated his military cred, which should have been his critical advantage over GW Bush's chicken-hawk military "career").

Of course, the McCain agenda unequivocally contradicts their new message, which was Obama's point, but the opposition managed to completely avoid that part of the debate, while their dupes in the news media amplified their message by focusing exclusively on the lipstick smear. They took a potent attack on the hypocrisy of their agenda--McCain/Palin's plans on the war and the economy are, if anything, Bush on steroids (more war, no timetables, far more tax cuts for the wealthiest than even Bush has dared to propose)--and turned it to their advantage.

So how do you beat these folks? At times it seems like we're fighting the bad guys in a science fiction movie: "resistance is futile." But I don't think it is. In fact, I think they've exposed a weak flank, and while it's a race against time, the stakes are so high that we've got no choice but to devote all of our energies to establishing this simple meme:

They're telling lies, and liars make fatal leaders. I don't just mean fatal in terms of fiscal recklessness and more economic failure. I mean fatal in terms of decisions that could cost people their lives. Sound familiar?

It may also sound over the top, and there are caveats that I'll stress in a moment, but it's true. Krugman had this exactly right the other day:

"...the deceptive and dishonest 2000 Bush-Cheney campaign provided an all-too-revealing preview of things to come. In fact, my early suspicion that we were being misled about the threat from Iraq came from the way the political tactics being used to sell the war resembled the tactics that had earlier been used to sell the Bush tax cuts.

And now the team that hopes to form the next administration is running a campaign that makes Bush-Cheney 2000 look like something out of a civics class..."

Palin didn't say "thanks, but no thanks" re the bridge to nowhere. Her state got and spent the federal money. On this point, the media's been pretty good, but she keeps repeating her mantra. Obama's tax plan provides a larger break to the middle class than McCain's--about $1,100 vs. $300--the polar opposite of what the McCain folks keep saying. Obama didn't promote sex-ed for kindergarteners. McCain's campaign is run by the very lobbyists he consistently inveighs against; Palin's aggressively and effectively pursued Congressional earmarks.

We all know presidential politics are a nasty business, but they've taken it to another level. The untruths we're used to are conceptual, fuzzier, more ambiguous, stuff you can't easily prove or disprove, like, "we'll pay for our tax cuts by cutting spending (and don't worry, we'll only cut the wasteful stuff that nobody outside of a few crooks really wants)." Or "by cutting taxes on the wealthy, we will free the invisible hand and unleash untold riches that will trickle down to all." Or the stuff about victory in Iraq, whatever that is.

The McCain squad touts this stuff too, of course, and we can and do have good arguments over their validity. But the lies they're telling now are different. As Krugman said, they're "making assertions that anyone with an Internet connection can disprove in a minute, and repeating these assertions over and over again."

(The caveat I mentioned is that they're not all lying. Doug Holtz-Eakin, a leading McCain economic advisor and an acquaintance/fellow traveler for whom I've always had great respect, has a history of speaking truth to power. I suspect he's not too comfortable with a lot of the stuff he has to sell these days...see here for an example of what I mean.)

So why is resistance not futile? Because the lies could form their campaign and candidates' persona, and that could hurt them big-time. It's becoming a negative, mainstream theme. Jay Leno's making fun of it. The mainstream media is starting to come around. Obama's team is hitting back harder. You really can't fool all the people all the time.

The lying persona could become their 'Dukakis in the tank,' Papa Bush at the scanner, Kerry's "I voted for it before I voted against it"--the meme that defines a deep and fundamental weakness that reaches voters in their guts and just gives them a bad feeling about this ticket.

And given the last eight years, that may be enough to tip the scales. Not, of course, with the evangelicals allegedly charged up by the Palin pick, but with the independents in the swing states who will likely decide the outcome. They may be unfamiliar with someone like Obama, or too familiar with someone like Biden, or unable to sort through the fog of misinformation to assess with any clarity the campaigns' positions on the issues that matter to them. But if the truth about these naked lies is out there in a palatable way, they'll know they're being lied to, and they won't like it.

And then, they can honestly use that phrase that's been so misleading repeated over the last couple of weeks:

McCain/Palin? Thanks, But No Thanks.

Hey, that might be a neat bumper sticker, no?

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