No, Candidates Don't Have to Lie

We reached some kind of a milestone this week when the Romney campaign decided it would use the word "lie" when complaining about criticisms the Obama campaign is making of the Republican soon-to-be nominee. It's a word journalists almost never use, since it sounds too judgmental and they know they'll be accused of taking sides, and candidates seldom use, perhaps because it sounds too whiny, I'm not precisely sure. What we do know is that while some candidates are bigger liars than others, no presidential candidate seems capable of getting through a campaign without saying things that aren't true. Conor Friedersdorf asks, "Can anyone become president without lying? Without misrepresenting their opponent? Without using people as a means to an end? I don't think anyone can." The complaints about Barack Obama that he cites are more about broken promises, which are different from lies, but I'll grant that Obama has said some things that weren't true. Yet I'd have to disagree.

First, let's be clear what we're talking about. When we say "lie," we usually aren't referring to little white lies that harm no one ("It's great to be back in Ohio!") or to things said extemporaneously one time that turn out to be inaccurate. Lying implies a knowing intent to deceive. So I'd argue that the ones that matter most are the ones that are repeated, even after it has been pointed out that they aren't true. Mitt Romney's allegation that Barack Obama went around the world "apologizing for America" is a good example. Romney has probably repeated this claim hundreds of times, and it's simply impossible that he doesn't know it's utterly bogus.

I'd also argue that lies about policy are more revealing and important than lies about one's personal life, even though it's the latter that draw far more interest from reporters (I elaborated on this point here). George W. Bush, for instance, lied a lot about policy during the 2000 campaign, and he then went on to lie frequently about policy as president (I won't bore you with the details, but I wrote a whole book about it, what now seems like a lifetime ago).

But here's where I'd disagree with Conor: Even if every presidential candidate does lie at one point or another, that doesn't mean they have to. Oh sure, to be a successful politician you have to tell lots of white lies ("There's nothing I care about more than the future of our children"), but the meaningful, egregious lies never seem to give them much benefit, at least on an individual basis. Would Mitt Romney have failed to get the Republican nomination if he hadn't repeated the "apologizing for America" lie so many times? Of course not. Romney is an unusually dishonest candidate, but I'd bet he could have stuck to shading the truth and leaving a misleading impression, but not told the outright lies, and been just as successful.

Presidential lies are another matter; the big ones usually come when the candidate has gotten caught doing something wrong and feels backed into a corner (Watergate, Iran-Contra, Lewinsky). But on the campaign trail, it would be perfectly possible for a candidate to be just as simplistic and demagogic as he likes without actually saying things he knows for sure aren't true.

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