A citizen would have to be awfully naive to expect strict fidelity to the truth from any politician, much less a presidential candidate. As a thought experiment, however, it's interesting to wonder how an epic prevaricator like Mitt Romney would handle the presidency.
See, when the president says something crazily at odds with reality, everybody notices. When he makes an obvious blunder, like President Obama's assertion that "the private sector's doing fine," voters take heed. Too many, and his credibility's shot.
Candidates, however — especially Republican candidates — are granted broader latitude. The "he said, she said" conventions of news media campaign coverage give the challenger a con man's edge. Wary of appearing partisan, "mainstream" reporters normally leave it to candidates and their representatives to sort out the truth. Candidate Romney takes full advantage.
One quick example: At a rally last March, Romney alleged that during his State of the Union address, President Obama "didn't even mention the deficit or the debt, even as the world is reeling, watching what's happening in Europe...and yet he has nothing to say about it."
Politifact.com checked the transcript. In fact, Obama's speech highlighted his proposals to cut the deficit and pay down the debt a half-dozen times. It was one of his major themes.
"When it comes to the deficit," Obama said "we've already agreed to more than $2 trillion in cuts and savings. But we need to do more." He said that due to loopholes and tax shelters, many multi-millionaires (such as Romney) pay lower tax rates than middle class households. "If we're serious about paying down our debt," he added, that kind of favoritism can't continue.
So did Romney apologize? Are you kidding? His campaign never responded to Politifact, which awarded a "Pants-on-fire" rating reserved for ridiculous falsehoods. Altogether, Romney's achieved that distinction 13 times, mostly for indefensible smears against Obama, another being that he "went around the world and apologized for America" — chain e-mail make-believe. (Obama's earned three, mainly for exaggerating his own successes.)
You name it, Mitt's equivocated about it. The Etch-a-Sketch candidate's famously taken all sides of every social issue. He's been pro-choice, pro-life; for gay rights, then against them. He's been all over the place on immigration policy. No wonder some conservatives don't trust him.
Romney wrote a New York Times op ed opposing Obama's plan to save the Detroit auto industry; today he boasts the White House followed his lead. He authored a 2009 USA Today column backing a health insurance mandate like the one he pushed through in Massachusetts — his only undeniable success as governor. Now he calls "Obamacare" an offense to freedom.
Actually, the scary thing is that millions of low-information voters don't know these things; millions more can rationalize damn near anything during an election campaign. So when Romney falsely claims that Obama has no jobs plan, they're the suckers he's angling for.
But what if he actually won the election? Would Romney, as president, continue his habit of shameless prevarication? The candidate's recent foray into what my friend Bob Somerby at dailyhowler.com calls "the cult of the offhand comment" makes me suspect that he would.
Touting his record of creating 4.3 million jobs, what President Obama clearly meant to say was that state and local governments are hurting worse than business. Hence, "the private sector's doing fine."
Talk about stepping on your own message! The White House backpedaled almost immediately. There are ways Obama could have defended his remark: the stock market's almost doubled since 2009; corporate profits are at an all time-high; limousine and yacht sales are strong. But the president had clearly bungled his lines.
Romney pounced, deriding Obama as out of touch. Fair enough. Nobody really believes Obama thinks the economy's booming; but, hey, it's politics.
Then he took it a big step further.
"He wants another stimulus; he wants to hire more government workers. He says we need more firemen, more policemen, more teachers," Romney said. "Did he not get the message of Wisconsin? The American people did. It's time for us to cut back on government and help the American people."
So the message is fewer teachers, cops and firefighters? It's hard to put any other construction on Romney's words. The Obama campaign quickly produced a video starring Mitt himself.
"While President Obama has a plan to create 1 million jobs," the ad argued. "Mitt Romney is proposing cutbacks of jobs for police officers, firefighters, and teachers — the same plan he enforced in Massachusetts."
Romney too could have said he'd misspoken. Instead, he chose the kind of inane bluster that's beginning to appear congenital: appearing on "Fox & Friends" to deny what he called "a strange," "completely absurd" accusation that he'd said, well, exactly what he'd said.
Candidates can sometimes get away with such nonsense; a president who tried, however, would invite contempt and derision.