When Do Reporters Start Calling Mitt Romney a Liar?

Two days ago, Barack Obama went before AIPAC (which is commonly known as "the Israel Lobby" but would be better understood as the Likud lobby, since it advocates not Israel's interests per se but the perspective of the right wing of Israeli politics, but that's a topic for another day), and said, among other things, the following:

"I have said that when it comes to preventing Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon, I will take no options off the table, and I mean what I say. That includes all elements of American power: A political effort aimed at isolating Iran; a diplomatic effort to sustain our coalition and ensure that the Iranian program is monitored; an economic effort that imposes crippling sanctions; and, yes, a military effort to be prepared for any contingency. Iran’s leaders should understand that I do not have a policy of containment; I have a policy to prevent Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon. And as I have made clear time and again during the course of my presidency, I will not hesitate to use force when it is necessary to defend the United States and its interests."

This didn't surprise anyone, because it's the same thing Obama has been saying for a while, in scripted and unscripted remarks alike, in both speeches and interviews. Yet later that day, Mitt Romney went out and said the following:

"This is a president who has failed to put in place crippling sanctions against Iran. He's also failed to communicate that military options are on the table and in fact in our hand, and that it's unacceptable to America for Iran to have a nuclear weapon."

So here's my question: Just what will it take for reporters to start writing about the question of whether Mitt Romney is, deep within his heart, a liar?

Because he does this kind of thing frequently, very frequently. Sometimes the lies he tells are about himself (often when he's trying to explain away things he has said or done in the past if today they displease his party's base, as he's now doing with his prior support for an individual mandate for health insurance), but most often it's Barack Obama he lies about. And I use the word "lie" very purposefully. There are lots of things Romney says about Obama that are distortions, just plain ridiculous, or unfalsifiable but obviously false, as when he often climbs into Obama's head to tell you what Obama really desires, like turning America into a militarily weak, economically crippled shadow of Europe (not the actual Europe, but Europe as conservatives imagine it to be, which is something like Poland circa 1978). But there are other occasions, like this one, where Romney simply lies, plainly and obviously. In this case, there are only two possibilities for Romney's statement: Either he knew what Obama has said on this topic and decided he'd just lie about it, or he didn't know what Obama has said, but decided he'd just make up something about what Obama said regardless of whether it was true. In either case, he was lying.

The "Who is he, really?" question is one that consumes campaign coverage, but in Romney's case the question has been about phoniness, not dishonesty, and the two are very different things. What that means is that when Romney makes a statement like this one, reporters don't run to their laptops to write stories that begin, "Raising new questions about his candor, today Mitt Romney falsely accused President Obama..." The result is that he gets a pass: there's no punishment for lying, because reporters hear the lie and decide that there are other, more important things to write about.

To get a sense of what it's like when reporters are on the lookout for lies, remember what Al Gore went through in 2000. To take just one story, when Gore jokingly told a union audience that as a baby his parents would rock him to sleep to the strains of "Look for the Union Label," everyone in attendance laughed, but reporters shouted "To the Internet!" and discovered that the song wasn't written until Gore was an adult. They then wrote entire stories about the remark, with those "Raising new questions..." ledes, barely entertaining the possibility that Gore was joking. Why not? Because it was Al Gore, and they all knew he was a liar, so obviously if he said something that wasn't literally true it could only have been an intentional falsehood.

That is not yet the presumption when it comes to Mitt Romney. There's another factor at play as well, which is that reporters, for reasons I've never completely understood, consider it a greater sin to lie about yourself, particularly about your personal life, than to lie about your opponent or about policy (I wrote about the different kinds of lies and how the press treats them differently here). Because Romney is lying about his opponent and about a policy matter, reporters just aren't as interested. But at some point, these things begin to pile up, and they really ought to start asking whether this dishonesty is something fundamental in Romney's character that might be worth exploring.

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