It’s Easy When You Make the Rules

Steve Benen writes:

The Washington Post’s E. J. Dionne Jr. had a column four years ago this month that’s always stuck with me. He noted, in the midst of the last presidential campaign, that Republicans are not above lying, but Democrats just can’t bring themselves to do the same thing. “A very intelligent political reporter I know said the other night that Republicans simply run better campaigns than Democrats,” Dionne wrote at the time. “If I were given a free pass to stretch the truth to the breaking point, I could run a pretty good campaign, too.”

I thought about the column when I was chatting this morning with a friend who works in Democratic campaign politics. We commiserated over the fact that Obama has become efficient in responding to the constant barrage of deceptive attacks from the McCain campaign, but doesn’t launch deceptive attacks of his own against the McCain campaign.

That’s basically the long and short of it. It’s really easy to look like amazing politcal operatives when you can get away with basically anything, especially lying about your opponent. In much the same way, it would be easy to be an All-Pro defensive back in the NFL if you could drag the opposing receiver to the ground before he could make a catch without the referee calling pass interference. This may seem like a minute point to some, but it’s really not.

For instance, recently Gallup found that a fulll 53% of people think their federal taxes will go up if Obama is elected President. Which is rather perverse, since Obama is not only proposing a fairly hefty tax cut, but is actually offering a bigger tax cut than McCain to all but the top 5% of earners in the country. But it shouldn’t really surprise anyone that a majority of Americans believe Obama will raise their taxes, because the entire McCain campaign, from candidate to running mate to advisers to surrogates, has made saying Obama is going to raise taxes a central focus of their message. They know it’s not true, the media knows it’s not true, but the media won’t actually drive home the point that it’s not true so, for the most part, voters don’t know it’s not true.

So of course, much like a football game, if there’s no actual penalty enforced for breaking the “rules,” the players aren’t going to abide by them out of the goodness of their hearts, especially not the Patriots Republicans.

I guess the question then is how do you respond if you’re a Democrat. You could, obviously, respond in kind as Steve goes on to suggest, and make wildly misleading attacks of your own (although I don’t think the particular ad he recommends is necessarily wrong, so much as it demonstrates starkly how McCain doesn’t understand what he’s saying, but that’s a different topic), but that creates its own problem. Namely, if Democrats respond in kind, this becomes just another fact of politics that “both sides” do, and the media will drop any pretense of calling bullshit on anything. Which is fine if the goal is just to win an election, but in that scenario it’s everyone who loses, as no one cares about the truth anymore. You can call it out at every turn, and to be sure the Obama campaign has been doing a good job of that, but then you have to count on the media to really run with it, and after years of being beaten to a bloody pulp by a concerted right wing effort to enscone the idea of a “liberal media” in everyone’s consciousness, they’re not going to do that. So, in the short run, the best answer seems to be to dodge the media as best possible, namely by pressing the point directly in the debates, where the most people are watching. Obama can ask McCain why he feels the need to lie to the public to his face on national TV, and anyone watching can view it through their own eyes.

In the long run, I suppose the only good answer is to further the effort of groups like ThinkProgress and Media Matters, and continue pushing back against the right’s effort to dumb down the political press.