We may be talking a lot about Medicare, but on the airwaves, Mitt Romney is just not giving up on the welfare attack. As you should know by now, over the last couple of weeks Romney has been airing ads featuring an unusually brazen lie about the Obama administration, claiming that Obama has eliminated work requirements from welfare. It's just false, as every fact-checker has attested and anyone who is not actually in Mitt Romney's employ will tell you. Romney has been repeating this lie on the stump as well. Everybody understands the racial subtext underneath the welfare attack, so we needn't dwell on that at the moment. But what's remarkable is that despite the judgment of journalists, Romney just keeps on telling the lie. Here's the third ad his campaign has produced about it:
Why does Romney keep saying this? Because he isn't getting punished for it, that's why. It isn't enough that the fact-checker columns say it's false. What's required to really chasten a political liar is stories specifically about the fact that he's lying and asking whether that makes him, deep down in his soul, a liar. But that hasn't happened yet, and Steve Benen asks why:
I'm having a hard time wrapping my head around the political world's strange standards. If a super PAC puts a video online with a dubious timeline, it's a multi-week scandal, and evidence of a campaign stuck in the gutter. If Vice President Biden uses a poorly-worded, off-the-cuff metaphor, it's a multi-week scandal, and proof that 2012 has become excessively ugly.
But if Mitt Romney gets caught repeatedly making an unambiguous, racially-charged lie, it's seen as somehow routine.
Why do gaffes and unaired web ads dominate the political world's attention, while shameless lying leads to shrugged shoulders?
Why gaffes get so much attention is its own story, but the reason a lie like this one doesn't generate more condemnation is simple: It's about policy. That has no legitimate justification, but the fact is that reporters believe that if Candidate A says something false about Candidate B's personal life, it's a terrible lie and he should be called out about it, but if Candidate A says something false about Candidate B's policy positions and policy record, hey, that's just rough-and-tumble politics. Two years ago I wrote about the utterly nonsensical unspoken rules reporters follow when deciding how bad a lie told by a candidate is:
The first rule is that lying about yourself is worse than lying about your opponent. Candidates routinely fib about their opponents' records and histories with little notice. Perhaps it's because reporters presume that in the rough-and-tumble of a campaign, a certain degree of hyperbole is to be expected and therefore can't be judged too harshly. If you claim, though, to have done something you haven't, reporters will usually be all over you. Look at what happened to [Christine] O'Donnell's fellow Senate candidates Mark Kirk in Illinois, who was caught inflating his military record in multiple ways, and Richard Blumenthal of Connecticut, who said at various times that he had served "in" Vietnam when really he had served "during" Vietnam. This is the kind of lie reporters find outrageous -- when candidates make themselves look more heroic or accomplished than they actually are. A lie about your opponent may draw attention, but the discussion will be about whether the attack was out of line; in other words, what you did. A lie about yourself, on the other hand, will spur a discussion about who you are.
Which leads to the second rule: Lying about personal matters is worse than lying about policy. That may be because reporters think policy is less important than "character," but whatever the cause, candidates can, with few exceptions, get away with murder when it comes to policy. O'Donnell herself has benefited from this double standard; lots of people heard about her comments about witchcraft, but nearly no one knows that she revived the claim that the Affordable Care Act will create "death panels" -- perhaps the most despicable lie to have coursed through our political bloodstream in recent years.
So that's my explanation: because Mitt Romney is "only" lying about policy, reporters find it no big deal. Trouble is, lying about policy during the campaign is a pretty good indication that you'll lie about policy when you're president. At this point, is there anyone who thinks that Mitt Romney is a fundamentally honest guy who won't ever deceive the public if he thought it would serve his political ends?