George F. Will, the so-called "thinking man's" conservative, has just given Republicans permission to lie, and to do so shamelessly, promiscuously -- perhaps even extravagantly. He does so using the right wing's rhetorical weapon of choice: Projection.
In a Washington Post column last weekend, George Will provides political covering fire for the outright falsehoods Mitt Romney has been telling about President Obama's record on welfare that has Republican "Morning Joe" host Joe Scarborough declaring himself "stunned" at the level of their mendacity.
For days now, and in both paid advertisements and during appearances on the stump, Romney has been insisting Obama took the work requirement out of welfare.
"We value work; our society celebrates hard work; we look to a government to make it easier for jobs to be created and people to go to work," Romney piously intones on the campaign trail. "We do not look for a government that tries to find ways to provide for people who are not willing to work. And so I'm gonna put work back into welfare and make sure able-bodied people can get jobs."
Three cheers for Romney! goes the crowd. The problem is, as Alex MacGillis reports in the New Republic, none of this is true. Romney's claims, he says, are "utterly, totally false -- as any number of fact-checkers have established."
The truth is, as MacGillis says, that a handful of states (including some governed by Republicans) asked the Obama administration for greater flexibility in meeting the government's welfare work requirements. The administration agreed, provided the strategies used by the states increased work participation rates 20% or more.
Scarborough, a former Gingrich-era Republican Congressman from Florida, said he's been looking into the issue for more than a week now, trying to figure out what Romney's talking about. And he's finally come to the conclusion that Romney's claim is "completely false. It's just completely false. And I'm pretty stunned."
But that hasn't caused Romney to pull his dishonest ad or stop lying about Obama's record on the stump -- since he's engaged in an obvious attempt to repeat the success Ronald Reagan had with white working class voters when he campaigned against Democrats using the equally fallacious idea of "welfare queens."
And that is where George Will comes in. In his Sunday column, Will accuses Obama of running a campaign that is "sociopathic -- indifferent to the truth." His only proof is an advertisement put together by a Super PAC on Obama's behalf about steelworker Joe Soptic whose wife died of cancer after being laid off from her job and losing health care coverage. In the ad, Soptic seems to blame Romney and Bain Capital for her death.
Will calls the ad "meretricious about every important particular," whose production reflects a President who has "sunk into such unhinged smarminess" that there is "nothing he won't say about Romney because he has nothing to say for himself."
Therefore, says Will, Romney is free to choose a running mate whose positions may be extreme but "whose seriousness about large problems and ideas" contrasts favorably with a President who has become "silly and small."
Will's larger aim is to tell Republicans they need not be intimidated by charges they are pants-on-fire liars since, as Will insists, President Obama is one too.
Now, I've seen the ad. And its inference that Romney was either directly or indirectly to blame for the woman's death makes me uncomfortable as well. Its charge is a bit of a stretch and so is probably deserving of the one (out of four) "Pinocchio" rating it got from the Washington Post's fact-checkers. But "sociopathic?" "Meretricious?" "Unhinged smarminess?"
There is a tone of desperation in Will's over-the-top characterization of this example of negative advertising, which, it should be said, is made possible by Will's support for the unlimited and untraceable corporate campaign spending permitted by the Supreme Court's ruling in Citizens United.
Will also provides additional support for my thesis that political extremists manufacture extremism on the other side in order to mainstream their own extremism.
To the Barry Goldwater-supporting Will there was nothing extreme at all in Goldwater's declaration during the Republican Party's National Convention at San Francisco's Cow Palace in 1964 that "extremism in the defense of liberty is no vice" and "moderation in the pursuit of justice is no virtue."
As proof, Will cites the "echo" of Goldwater's words in those written by Martin Luther King Jr. 15 months earlier, in King's famous Letter from Birmingham Jail, when the civil rights leader said: "You speak of our activity in Birmingham as extreme. But though I was initially disappointed at being categorized as an extremist, as I continued to think about the matter I gradually gained a measure of satisfaction from the label. Was not Jesus an extremist for love? Was not Amos an extremist for justice? Was not Paul an extremist for the Christian gospel? Perhaps the South, the nation and the world are in dire need of creative extremists."
I suppose Will is right that Goldwater's position is identical to that of King's if you consider that both men used the word "extremism" or some variant thereof - Goldwater twice and King six times. But I'll let you decide if the two men' politics were in any way the same.
Will's rhetorical shell game reminds me of something Walter Lippmann once said in his very first book, A Preface to Politics, written almost 100 years ago, when Lippmann said debating was "such a wretched amusement" and most partisanship "degrading."
That's because the trick in politics, said Lippmann, is "to argue from the opponent's language, never from his insight. You take him literally, you pick up his sentences and you show what nonsense they are. You do not try to weigh what you see against what he sees; you contrast what you see with what he says. So debating becomes a way of confirming your own prejudices; it is never, never in any debate I have suffered through, a search for understanding from the angles of two differing insights."
And that's what Will is doing here, merely twisting words, which is another way of saying Will is engaged in sophistry.
Now, it would not ordinarily be smart politics in an election year to resurrect the memory of the last Republican presidential candidate to get buried under the rubble of an electoral college landslide. But as we are learning from the Ryan/Romney campaign's summer offensive against President Obama on the radioactive topic of ending Medicare as we know it, this seems to be the season when conservatives are determined to make a virtue of their vices.
Like most Republican-supporting professionals, I suspect Will thought Romney's selection of Paul Ryan to be his running mate was a huge, even reckless, gamble given Ryan's reputation as the guy who wants to end Medicare as we know it.
Since most Republican candidates are running away from the Ryan plan as fast as their consultants can push them, the only way to address this liability, some Republicans have decided, is to blame Obama for the very same thing.
The toxicity of the Republican Party's positions on Medicare, Social Security, tax cuts for the rich, and now the harsh reality of rape is also why Michael Tomasky (among others) says "Republicans, by definition, have to lie."
Tomasky says that the distinguishing fact of the Romney-Ryan campaign thus far "is the extent to which it is built on outright lies in a desperate attempt to avoid honest debate at all costs."
When Romney first picked Paul Ryan to be his running mate there was talk in the press of a coming "big debate on big issues." But so far, says Tomasky, "the Romney-Ryan strategy is the farthest thing in the world from a Big Debate. Instead, they muddy the waters as much as possible and lie as much as possible, and hope the press doesn't call them on it and hope voters buy it."
And the most blatant lie, says Tomasky, is Romney's "four Pinocchio" claim that President Obama has ended work requirements for welfare, which he has not. Not even close.
"This is not normal," says Tomasky. It's normal is to stretch the truth as the Obama campaign did in trying to connect Romney with Bain-related layoffs that happened after Romney left in 2002. "That's your basic reach," and the Obama campaign has been called on it, "but it's not a total lie," says Tomasky. "But the Romney welfare ads have no grain of truth at all."
Will's Washington Post colleague, Matt Miller, also calls Paul Ryan a fraud whose "audacious and revealing" dishonesties need to be exposed.
As an example, Miller dissects Ryan's recent interview with Brit Hume "because it shows the brand of disingenuousness we're dealing with."
When Ryan was asked by the Fox News host to explain with a straight face how he could criticize President Obama for making the very same $719 billion savings in Medicare over the next decade that Ryan incorporates in his own budget, Ryan muttered and sputtered before insisting the two plans were entirely different. Obama's plan, Ryan said, was the only one that used Medicare savings for "Obamacare."
Well, yes, I guess that's technically true. But then it is also true that Ryan's budget is the only plan that comes with a blue cover -- or that uses its Medicare "savings" on tax cuts for the rich.
When the questioning turned to spending generally, Miller noticed that Hume grew progressively impatient with Ryan's evasions as he repeatedly dodged Hume's efforts to nail down the Republican's presumptive Veep nominee on exactly when his budget envisions being in balance.
"Not until the 2030s, Ryan finally admits, looking uncomfortable," writes Miller. "But then he quickly adds, making a face, that's only under the Congressional Budget Office's scoring rules, implying that they're silly constraints every Fox News viewer would agree are ridiculous (instead of sensible rules meant to credit politicians only for policy proposals that are real)."
Miller says he is "harping" on Ryan's undeserved reputation as a fiscal hawk "because it's impossible to overstate how central the unjustified label of 'fiscal conservative' is to the Ryan brand and the GOP's strategy."
Democrats "can't afford to let Ryan/Romney's phony image as superior fiscal stewards survive," says Miller. "And Hume's interview shows how swiftly this charade can be exposed if Democrats and the press zero in on simple questions like Hume's."
The New York Time's Paul Krugman agrees, calling Ryan "an unserious man" whose fiscal plan "is and always has been a con game."
Adding up the numbers, Krugman says Ryan is proposing $4.3 trillion in tax cuts that are only partially offset by around $1.7 trillion in spending cuts - with tax cuts disproportionately favoring the richest of the rich while spending cuts come at the expense of low-income families. But the overall effect, says Krugman, would be to increase the deficit by about $2.5 trillion.
"Yet Mr. Ryan claims to be a deficit hawk? What's the basis for that claim?" wonders Krugman.
The answer, he says, is basically "a triumph of style over substance," with the outstanding question being "whether Ryan's undeserved reputation for honesty and fiscal responsibility can survive his participation in a deeply dishonest and irresponsible presidential campaign."
George Will has an answer for that, too.
In a campaign practically defined by mendacity, me thinks George Will doth protest too much about the President's alleged fibs and exaggerations. Indeed, Will's outrage seems conveniently calculated to give the Republican ticket a blank check to deceive by inoculating Republicans against all future charges that their policies are outside the mainstream or that their campaign on their policies' behalf a farce.
Even Will seems to admit as much when he urges readers to remember the Soptic ad "when you hear, ad nauseam, that Ryan is directly, and Romney now is derivatively, an extremist" for their positions on Medicare, tax hikes on the richest Americans and much else.
And this from the guy who on the very same day says scientists warning of climate change are causing "apocalypse fatigue -- boredom from being repeatedly told the end is nigh."