Some public figures get defined by a single image, or a single statement ("Ask not what your country can do for you"; "I am not a crook"). Others have a characteristic linguistic tic or hand gesture that through repetition come to embody them; think of Ronald Reagan's head shake, George W. Bush's shoulder-shimmy, or that closed-fist-with-thumb-on-top thing Bill Clinton used to do.
For Mitt Romney, it's the laugh. I'm sure that at times Romney laughs with genuine mirth, but you know the laugh I'm talking about. It's the one he delivers when he gets asked a question he doesn't want to answer, or is confronted with a demand to explain a flip-flop or a lie. It's the phoniest laugh in the world, the one New York Times reporter Ashley Parker wrote "sounds like someone stating the sounds of laughter, a staccato 'Ha. Ha. Ha.'" Everything Mitt Romney is as a candidate is distilled within that laugh—his insincerity, his ambition, his awkwardness, and above all his fear. When Mitt laughs that way, he is not amused. He is terrified. Because he knows that what he's saying is utter baloney, and he knows that we know it.
So he pretends to find it hilarious that an interviewer wants him to explain why, say, Romneycare was great for Massachusetts but the nearly identical Obamacare is a Stalinist horror for America. Perhaps it is the pain of enacting this facsimile of delight so many times that has hardened Mitt's heart and allowed him to run what has become a campaign of truly singular dishonesty. But whatever moral calculation underlies the decisions he makes, this is the place we have arrived: There may have never been a more dishonest presidential candidate than Mitt Romney.
I say "may," because measuring dishonesty with any precision is an extraordinarily difficult challenge, perhaps an impossible one. But by almost any standard of mendacity we could devise—the sheer quantity of lies, the shamelessness with which they are offered, the centrality of those lies to the candidate's case to the voters—Romney has made enormous strides to outdo his predecessors.
It started before he even began his campaign, when Romney wrote an entire book premised on a lie about Barack Obama. Romney's pre-campaign book, called No Apology: The Case for American Greatness, was built on the idea that Barack Obama makes a habit of apologizing for America, and Mitt Romney would do no such thing. "Never before in American history," Romney wrote, "has its president gone before so many foreign audiences to apologize for so many American misdeeds, both real and imagined." The actual number of times Barack Obama has gone before a foreign audience to apologize for American misdeeds is zero, as has been extensively documented. Undaunted, Romney began his campaign by repeating the lie of the Obama "apology tour" hundreds of times, before audiences all across the land.
And that was just the beginning. If you have the better portion of a day, you could wade through the lengthy catalogue of deceptions blogger Steve Benen has assembled under the heading "Chronicling Mitt's Mendacity." Periodically, Benen puts together 20 or so Romney falsehoods for a post; his latest installment is the 29th in the series.
They come in all shapes and sizes. Some of things Romney says are clearly, factually false and seem to come out of no place other than the "this is the kind of thing a socialist like Obama would do" corner of Romney's imagination, as when he claimed that Obama raised corporate tax rates (nope), or alleged that "President Obama is shrinking our military and hollowing out our national defense" (the military budget has increased every year Obama has been in office). Others are bizarrely false, as when he has said multiple times that the Obama administration hasn't signed any new trade agreements (since Obama took office we have new trade agreements with South Korea, Panama, and Columbia). Others sound like they just popped into his head and felt true, even though they're utterly wrong ("We are the only people on the earth that put our hand over our heart during the playing of the national anthem"). Some things he says are technically matters of interpretation, but are so absurd that no honest person could say them, as when he claims that under Obama, "we're only inches away from no longer being a free economy." Others are seductively specific, yet completely made up ("Obamacare also means that for up to 20 million Americans, they will lose the insurance they currently have, the insurance that they like and they want to keep").
But what is truly notable is how often Romney has put a lie at the center of his campaign. It's one thing to say something false in passing, perhaps when speaking extemporaneously. It's something else to tell a lie, then repeat it again and again on the stump, then put it in a television ad broadcast across the country, then send your surrogates out to repeat it to every camera they can find.
As you've no doubt seen, few of Romney's lies concern himself. He may gild a lily here and there about his record and his past, but the overwhelming portion of his deceptions are about Barack Obama—what he has said, what he has done, and what he believes (whenever you hear Romney say, "Barack Obama believes …" you can be certain he is about to say something ridiculously untrue). The new Romney attack on welfare—falsely claiming that the Obama is eliminating work requirements in the program—is only the latest, but it's hardly the first. Before that it was "you didn't build that," which set a new standard in deceptive use of an out-of-context quote. Before that were a hundred smaller lies about taxes, health care, the economy, foreign policy, and nearly every other subject that could possibly come up. One wonders if at some level Romney thinks he hasn't compromised his integrity if he only makes things up about his opponent.
This is Mitt Romney's own sin, of course, but it's also a failure of journalism. If reporters were really doing their jobs, they would be able to provide enough of a disincentive for lying that no candidate would feel free to mislead so brazenly and so often. They wouldn't mince words or fall back on false balance, but would forthrightly say that Romney is lying when the facts make clear he is. And so they might provide some punishment that would actually make Romney think twice before the next time he approves an ad script that says things that aren't true.
I doubt it'll happen. But if reporters decide that they really need to be more direct about Romney's mendacity, they may start confronting him about it, in some of the rare non-Fox interviews to which he consents. Should that time come, Romney will no doubt laugh. "Ha," he'll say. "Ha. Ha. Ha."