Lying and Political Campaigns

The Republican nominee gets some backhanded praise from an unlikely source, MoJo blogger Kevin Drum.

The Republican nominee gets some backhanded praise from an unlikely source, MoJo blogger Kevin Drum:

It takes a while for people to realize that norms have changed and to take advantage of it. Lots of politicians are probably still reluctant to lie too brazenly because they’re still working under the old rules, where the national media might call you on it and it might actually make a difference. The smart ones have figured out that this isn’t how it works anymore. Romney’s one of the smart ones.

If there’s irony in the assessment, it’s well disguised. Drum simply notes that national politicians have been getting away for twenty years what their local counterparts have been getting away with for a lot longer.

Recall who was in the White House twenty years ago. The difference between Romney and Bill Clinton is that the former is less adept at the art of telling bald faced lies while charming the audience. Indeed, my growing sense as this campaign has unfolded is that Romney is much more like the man Clinton beat to win the job, George H. W. Bush: a decent man with patrician roots who simultaneously finds political campaigning distasteful and embarrassing, so views the process as cynical. Clinton, like Bush’s predecessor Ronald Reagan, by contrast, honestly enjoyed the sport.

FILED UNDER: Campaign 2012, US Politics
James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College and a nonresident senior fellow at the Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security at the Atlantic Council. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm vet. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.

Comments

  1. Greg says:

    I like your site a lot, but these embedded text-ads that play stuff when you inadvertently roll over them are the work of the devil.

  2. James Joyner says:

    @Greg: They didn’t used to do that. I’ll investigate; it may not be worth keeping them.

  3. michael reynolds says:

    I think there’s a world of difference between George H.W. Bush and Mr. Romney.

    Bush Sr. was honest – for a politician. Romney is shameless liar. He’s an epic liar. He doesn’t just lie about Mr. Obama, he doesn’t just lie about his own record, he lies about his own soul, he lies about lying about lying.

    Mr. Bush had a long history of service to his country, in war, in various government departments, and as Veep. Romney rounded up sponsors for the Olympics, made a pile of money and may or may not have served as Governor of Massachusetts, but given Romney’s refusal to claim credit for that, maybe it’s just an urban legend.

  4. mattb says:

    Indeed, my growing sense as this campaign has unfolded is that Romney is much more like the man Clinton beat to win the job, George H. W. Bush: a decent man with patrician roots who simultaneously finds political campaigning distasteful and embarrassing, so views the process as cynical.

    While I’m sure that some people will have problems with the use of “decent”, this strikes me as a pretty accurate statement. Which leads to…

    Clinton, like Bush’s predecessor Ronald Reagan, by contrast, honestly enjoyed the sport.

    And I think its fair to also include Obama in this group — though I think he’s more about the intellectual competition of the campaign than those two populists.

    It’s also worth thinking about a change that was ushered in by Clinton and continued by GWB (and to a lesser degree Obama): the emphasis on likeability and the need to be of the people.* That seems to be Romney’s biggest problem with campaigning (as it was Kerry’s before him). Most of Romney’s biggest gaffes have come when he’s attempted to present himself as “of the people” rather than “for the people.” GWB, despite the wealth of his family, could make it appear he was a common man. Romney is terrible at it.

    * – Acutally, I guess that the argument could be made it started with Carter, continued with Reagan and that really GHWB was the true exception.

  5. James Joyner says:

    @michael reynolds: Oh, I fully agree that Bush The Elder is a bigger and better man than Romney. Different generation, etc. But I think they suffer the same flaw in that they’re a bit embarrassed about having been born with the proverbial silver spoon in their mouths and reticent about bragging about genuine good deeds. Romney brags about faux accomplishments but shies away from talking about his real charity work, which he considers profoundly personal.

    @mattb: Yes, he shares that flaw with Kerry and Al Gore. Unlike those guys, though, Romney’s not a natural politician. Bush 43 was; Bush 41 wasn’t. So Romney views campaigning as a game that he has to play, understands that it’s a cynical game of marketing and packaging, and doesn’t quite get–in the way a natural politician like Reagan, Clinton, or Obama does instinctively–the unspoken rules of the game.

  6. Rob in CT says:

    Romney views campaigning as a game that he has to play, understands that it’s a cynical game of marketing and packaging, and doesn’t quite get–in the way a natural politician like Reagan, Clinton, or Obama does instinctively–the unspoken rules of the game

    I think this is too cute by half.

    If all that was true, why in the world is Mitt Romney running for President? He’s been Gov. He’s made eleventy gajillion dollars. If it’s so distasteful, why do it?

    And his reaction to this distasteful business is total shameless lying? Huh?

    Wouldn’t the honest patrician fellow reaction be “screw that, I’m going to just be me and if I lose, to hell with them.” The expense of it all is pocket change.

    I really don’t follow you here, James.

  7. James Joyner says:

    @Rob in CT: It’s the same rationalization that I had for some of the weird tics GHWB had on the campaign trail: talking about “kicking a little ass” in the debate, calling Clinton and Gore “bozos,” and the like.

    There’s nothing about Romney outside of his positions on the campaign trail that makes me think he’s a dishonest or dishonorable man. But he’s Mr. Whatever You Want Me To Be as a politician.

    My take is that, like Bush, Romney is actually interested in public service and thinks he’d be a good steward as president. The only way to get that job, though, is to go through the rather silly and vacuous vetting process judged by media clowns and rubes. For any politician, that means following the script, avoiding silly gotcha games, and suspending intellectual honesty to a large degree in order to score silly points.

    Like any sport, politics has its unwritten rules. You don’t show up the pitcher. You don’t steal a base when your team is up 6 runs in the 9th. Natural politicians instinctively get that. Guys like 41 and Romney don’t.

    Of Bush 41, I always said that he’d have been a much better prime minister than he was president. The same may be true of Romney.

  8. c.red says:

    I believe I can see your conclusion, sort of – if I squint hard enough.

    But here is where it breaks down for me,either Romney actually believes what he is has been saying for the last two or three years or he does not. If he does then he is pretty much a poster child for everything you have been complaining about the republican party for the last few years.

    If he does not then he is willing to deceive 370 million people about his core personality for an extended period of time and knowingly taking money and making promises he has no intention of carrying out (re: Iran, China, jobs, immigration, etc.).

    In which of those scenarios is he someone worth supporting?

    I realize their is campaign spin, hype, and an expectation that there will be a lowering of expectations once in office, but Romney, in my opinion, has taken all these to ludicrous level.

  9. MBunge says:

    @James Joyner: “There’s nothing about Romney outside of his positions on the campaign trail that makes me think he’s a dishonest or dishonorable man.”

    You’re looking at it the wrong way. What is it about Romney that makes you think he’s an honest or honorable man in the first place? Are you just assuming that someone of his position in society MUST possess those qualities?

    Mike

  10. WR says:

    @James Joyner: Different generations? You mean Elder Bush is noble and good because he’s of the Greatest Generation and Mitt is less so because he was born later?

    Isn’t it possible — I know it’s such a crazy thought that Tom Brokaw would probably slap me for even thinking it — that every generation is made up of wonderful people and terrible people and everybody in between?

    Mitt’s a compulsive liar because he has contempt for all the little people and feels no need to bother their pretty little heads with the truth. The date of his birth has nothing to do with it.

  11. grumpy realist says:

    @James Joyner: Then why is Romney flip-flopping on every position each week and twice on Sunday?

    The guy honestly has no position aside from “vote for me for President and everything will be hunky-dory!”

    Born on third base and thinks he’s hit a triple.

  12. James Joyner says:

    @WR: No, I don’t believe in the “Greatest Generation” hype. But it is true that there were different cultural expectations in 1942 than there were in 1962 or 2002. It was simply a given that the sons of President Roosevelt, the son of Prescott Bush, and the son of Joe Kennedy would go off to war. Ditto most of our great athletes and actors. That expectation changed radically by the time of George W. Bush, much less Mitt Romney.

  13. al-Ameda says:

    Times may have changed but phoniness is timeless. Romney is shameless in running away from, not only positions he held in the recent past, but comments he makes in the recent past week or month. He does not come across as pragmatic, he comes across as “I’m not Obama, isn’t that enough?”

  14. ernieyeball says:

    @Greg: Capitalism is Satan’s Playground. Surely you know this!

  15. michael reynolds says:

    @James Joyner:

    Romney brags about faux accomplishments but shies away from talking about his real charity work, which he considers profoundly personal.

    The problem there is that it’s like me shying away from discussing my history of dating supermodels and fighting supervillains because I consider it profoundly personal.

  16. MarkedMan says:

    You know, it is a meme that Clinton was this incredible liar. I’m willing to accept that, given examples, but I haven’t seen those examples. Sullivan for notorious for saying essentially “there are so many examples I’m not going to list them here”.

  17. Just 'nutha ig'rant cracker says:

    @James Joyner: The answer is easier than that–just don’t scroll down the side of the page with ads on it. The few hangups that you get when the cursor “binds up” on the edge of the screen are a small annoyance by comparison.

  18. Just 'nutha ig'rant cracker says:

    @michael reynolds: I was going to comment on the “shying away from..” thing about Romney, but your own history of dating supervillians and fighting supermodels (or do I have that reversed?) is much more succinct and has the type of snarkiness that James will be able to understand better. Good comparison!

  19. MarkedMan says:

    James, it might be worth a post to explain exactly where you are getting your faith in Romney’s essential goodness. Personally, I just don’t see any evidence for it, but you seem sure that Romney is more than just a genial liar and I was wondering if you had evidence for that or if it was just a gut feeling?

  20. Jim Treacher says:

    @michael reynolds: If only he was as stalwart a guardian of the truth as Obama.

  21. @James Joyner: ” There’s nothing about Romney outside of his positions on the campaign trail that makes me think he’s a dishonest or dishonorable man.”

    This seems exactly, 180 degrees wrong to me.

    Remember, the reason we care about the government is because it implements policies that affect people’s lives.

    Romney is running for president. He’s lying constantly about America– about the effects of the president’s policies, regulatory uncertainty, “throwing Israel under the bus”, apology tours, and new ones almost every day.

    It’s bad for our discourse either way; maybe he believes objectively false things, or maybe, your view, he wants people to have to call him “Mr. President” and thinks he needs to lie constantly to do so.

    So, sure, he’s worked with charities, he’s white, he owns nice suits, etc. His impact on American discourse is still extremely negative.

  22. Fiona says:

    Chalk me up as someone else who isn’t convinced about Romney’s inner decency. To me, one major distinction between Bush 41 and Romney is that Bush’s career demonstrated a commitment to public service that far exceeds anything Romney has done. Bush put in lots of time in the trenches, while Romney could barely be bothered to serve one term as Massachusetts governor.

    Another major distinction is that while Bush 41, like Romney, seemed genuinely uncomfortable on the campaign trail, you always got the sense that he was a pretty decent guy who had a soul. Romney–not so much. There’s just something shifty and discomforting about the guy, as if he’s almost but not quite human. He also seems like he’d do or say ANYTHING to be president; whereas Bush 41 didn’t give off that vibe at all.

  23. Scott F. says:

    Like MarkedMan says, I’d like to see the case for Romney the Good.

    You’re performing some pretty strenuous gymnastics in this post to get to that conclusion. Surely you can share what lead you there.