I’ve been pretty constantly frustrated by both presidential campaigns so far. I had pretty low expectations from Romney, if nothing else because he has to continue courting the far right. Even then, he’s managed to surprise me by leaning on outright lies as major campaign themes. I think it’s hard to overemphasize how big a deal this is. The most effective adds for the Romney campaign are complete lies. Not distortions or misdirections, rather they are blatantly saying things that are the opposite of the truth. In the case of Welfare and Medicare Obama is literally doing the opposite of what the Romney campaign accuses him of.
But while Obama undeniably has a much better factual record, I had higher expectations for his campaign. Obama’s campaign has been criticized by fact-checking organizations for making misleading statements, primarily about Medicare, and they haven’t backed off on them. It has also made some accusations and implications that are in poor taste and has stood by them.
So as I said, frustrating. Romney’s campaign has been unusually dishonest, but Obama hasn’t maintained the moral high ground either. I feel like I’m constantly seeing things that require criticism or correction from both sides, to the point that engaging any of it seems pointless. I have long believed that the only way we can even hope for improvement is to point out dishonesty clearly, but now it feels almost hopeless. The dishonesty is pervasive and constant, and fact-checkers seem unable to shame the campaigns or even inform the public.
Given all that, I think it’s surprising how much the two campaigns actually agree. Both agree that the deficit needs to be controlled in the medium term. Both agree that economic growth should be our top priority in the short term. Both agree Medicare costs need to be controlled. The difference comes in how they want to solve those problems. The problem is that the population is ideologically rigid and unwilling to expend the effort to examine the mechanics of the solutions. So instead of talking about how best to fix these problems most of the campaigning has been about how the other side doesn’t really agree that the economy or the deficit is a problem.
So what to do? Frankly, I have no idea, and I’m not alone. It seems that with media more fractured and people moving to news sources that confirm their views rather than inform them the power of media to inform is seriously diluted. Worse, people seem comfortable with the dishonesty. The idea that politicians are liars is so ingrained in our culture that people casually dismiss even truly extraordinary dishonesty. And polarization is so strong that no matter how objectionable a talking point is, the answer is always to point to something from the other side.
As an Obama supporter, I have an obligation to criticize his willingness to use dishonest attacks. His claims about Medicare have been dishonest, and have cynically tried to scare seiors. He’s been too willing to accept below the belt character attacks. He’s been unwilling to admit his mistakes, and he’s exaggerated his success. Some of these can be excused, but I think that defeats the point. Rather than try to justify and excuse our side, we should be willing to hold it to a higher standard. Unfortunately, with Romney’s campaign boldly claiming that up is down and black is white, it becomes more difficult. So while I don’t know where we go from here, I do think two things are apparent. First: we need to do a better job of criticizing our own side. But equally important: we need to start with the biggest and boldest lies, and right now those are on the Republican side.