10/10/2012 11:10 am ET

Debate, Lies and Videotape

Since the Great Debate of 2012, self-proclaimed pundits have had a field day claiming that everyone on the debate podium "lied". But as with any word in the English language that is over-used (and thereby trivialized), this may be a time to reflect on that word.

Webster's New Collegiate dictionary defines a lie as "an assertion of something known or believed by the speaker to be untrue." But so irresistible has the use of this word become to political protagonists that the scope of its misuse has even extended to the simple act of changing one's mind. Thus when Obama changes his mind with regard to gay marriage, or Romney narrows his view of abortion, opponents are quick to call them "liars", or at least "flip-floppers". Even the term flip-floppers has become pejorative, apparently on the premise that anyone whose views evolve to respond to changed circumstances is to be cynically despised.

On such a premise, when President Lincoln changed his view that freed slaves should be deported to Africa to a different view that freed slaves should instead be welcomed into the fabric of American society, he deserved to be castigated for being a big fat "liar", or almost as bad, a "flip-flopper". Likewise, the liberal Supreme Court Justice Hugo Black should have been castigated for revising the views he had held when earlier in his career he had been a member of the Ku Klux Klan.

Somehow, then, the pundits have come to expect the informed voter to admire the politician who rigidly maintains a position long after it becomes untenable, and despise one whose position evolves in response to changed circumstances or a change in the moral consensus of the voting public. But what if a politician modifies a view less on personal conviction and more to accommodate a perceived shift in public opinion, as it appears that Obama did when he waited until the opinion polls showed he could gain more votes by supporting gay marriage than by not supporting it? Again, if the responsibility of a politician is to represent the body politic, why is it worthy of despisement to modify one's views to accommodate the views of those he represents, or to allow his views to "evolve"?

Pundits also relish flinging the "L" word when a candidate is asked to give an opinion that requires extensive elaboration in a two-minute sound bite. A case in point was a typical ranting on a recent radio talk show in which Romney was accused of "lying" when on the one hand he said he would not reduce taxes on the rich, but on the other hand said he would reduce tax rates across the board. According to the talk show host, such an "inconsistency" proved that Romney was "lying".

Of course anyone who had actually read Romney's comprehensive tax proposal understood that he was talking about simplifying the tax code by lowering the tax rates while reducing loopholes and deductions. And as economists know, it is the rich who have the most to lose if such deductions as municipal bond interest are eliminated -- not to mention the loss of tax deductions that are so complicated that only the rich can hire expensive accountants to calculate and claim them. Indeed, this is why many of the rich pay far more today than when the marginal tax rates exceeded 90 percent back in the 1950s, and why government revenues skyrocketed after the Reagan tax rate cuts were implemented along with the elimination of many loopholes and deductions.

Finally, pundits have inappropriately employed the "L" word when what they really mean to say is that a promise has been unfulfilled. But a broken promise is not a 'lie". It is a broken promise. Thus when Obama promised he would reduce the deficit, but instead increased it, he was no more a "liar" than the debtor who promises to make his credit card payments and later has to take out bankruptcy. He simply was unable, or unwilling, to fulfill his promise.

Yes, there are times when a politician does actually lie as opposed to simply changing her mind, failing to fully explain an apparent inconsistency in a sound bite, or breaks a promise. (Many remember the now infamous "I did not have sex with that woman").

But for the time being, let's consider imposing on the pundits a moratorium on the "L" word. They simply can't be trusted not to abuse it.