Mitt Romney's Implausible Bid for the High Road

Politics is tough, and most politicians—including President Obama—are willing to bend the truth to win an election. But there’s a difference between the small distortions of all campaigns, and the brazen dishonesty we’re seeing from Romney. In a 48-hour period, Mitt Romney has doubled-down on the false charge that Obama has ended work requirements for welfare, lied about the Affordable Care Act’s Medicare cost savings, and kicked up a storm over comments made by Vice President Joe Biden. That last one is noteworthy for the sheer chutzpah of Romney’s complaint.

During an event in Danville, Virginia (pronounced Dan-vul) with African-American supporters of the president, Biden deployed somewhat unfortunate language in attacking Romney’s promised repeal of financial reform:

"Romney wants to let the — he said the first 100 days — he’s gonna let the big banks once again write their own rules. Unchain Wall Street,” Biden said at an event in Danville, Va. “They gonna put y’all back in chains."

“Unchain” was a reference to Paul Ryan’s promise to “unshackle” the economy by repealing financial regulations and health care reform. And while Biden’s message is clear, it’s probably wise to avoid an allusion to slavery when talking to an audience of black people. Even still, it’s not a huge deal.


Team Romney wasted no time in jumping on the vice president’s rhetoric. “Well, there’s going to be folks across the country that will try and take that as some kind of code word that is going to suggest that the Republicans are trying to be racial in their programs,” said former New Hampshire governor John Sununu. Yesterday evening, while campaigning in Ohio, Romney referenced Biden’s remarks, attacking the Obama campaign for its “divisive” campaign:

“This is what an angry and desperate presidency looks like. President Obama knows better, promised better, and America deserves better,” Romney told a roaring crowd of about 5,000 supporters in Chillicothe. “His campaign strategy is to smash America apart and then try to cobble together 51 percent of the pieces. If an American president wins that way, we all lose.”

Romney added, “Mr. President, take your campaign of division and anger and hate back to Chicago and let us get about rebuilding and reuniting America.”

It’s hard to take this seriously. As I said earlier, Romney began this week with two huge whoppers. In an ad called “Long History,” Romney repeats the charge that Obama has ended welfare’s work requirements, “On July 12th, Obama quietly ended work requirements for welfare. You wouldn’t have to work, and wouldn’t have to train for a job.” Romney used this line last week, and was promptly denounced for his mendacity, and not just from the usual collection of fact-checkers; both Ron Haskins (who built welfare reform) and Bill Clinton (who signed it) weighed in to dispute Romney’s claim, which Clinton called “not true.”

The most disgraceful thing about Romney’s welfare attack—which he continues to use—is that it’s an obvious ploy to associate Obama with “handouts.” Welfare is one of the most racialized issues in American politics, and Romney’s attacks are a clear callback to the “welfare queens” and “young bucks” that punctuated Ronald Reagan’s rhetoric. It’s only a little more subtle than Newt Gingrich’s declaration that Obama is a “food stamp” president, and serves a similar purpose: to erode Obama’s standing among white voters who reflexively oppose anything that might hand benefits to the “undeserving.”

The same idea (and goal) underlies Romney’s attacks on the Medicare savings in the Affordable Care Act—“The money you paid for guaranteed health care is now going to a massive government program, that’s not for you.” With the backdrop of a white senior, the message of this ad is plain to see: Obama is giving your tax dollars to minorities.

(Since this is bound to inspire protest from readers, I will point you in the direction of research detailing the tight connection between racial attitudes and support for government programs.)

This is why it’s hard to stomach Romney’s complaints about “anger” and “divisiveness”; they come less than two days after he has renewed his attempt to split white voters from Obama with tired tropes about the undeserving poor. And when you look at the whole of his general-election campaign—which includes regular attacks on Obama’s fictional “apology tour,” and routine lies about his job-creation record—there’s no way in which Romney is in a position to take the high road.

Philosopher Harry Frankfurt famously defined “bullshit” as a statement made without regard to its truth value. Whether it's true or false is irrelevant—the point is to persuade. “[B]ullshitters seek to convey a certain impression of themselves without being concerned about whether anything at all is true.”

If this doesn’t describe Mitt Romney, I’m not sure what does.