Thomas B. Edsall, New York Times
Struggling to justify a recent television spot that reached new heights of deception, a top operative in Mitt Romney’s 2012 presidential campaign put it plainly, while insisting on anonymity:
“First of all, ads are propaganda by definition. We are in the persuasion business, the propaganda business…. Ads are agitprop…. Ads are about hyperbole, they are about editing. It’s ludicrous for them to say that an ad is taking something out of context…. All ads do that. They are manipulative pieces of persuasive art.”
The back story: On October 16, 2008, campaigning in Londonderry, New Hampshire, Obama cast his opponent, John McCain, as out of touch with the problems facing the country – a month after the financial collapse that saw the American economy crater. Obama was expressing his incredulity at McCain’s lack of understanding of the full import of the world-engulfing fiscal crisis: “Senator McCain’s campaign actually said, and I quote, ‘If we keep talking about the economy, we’re going to lose.’ ”
Fast forward to 2011. Two weeks ago, the Romney campaign, perhaps banking on the arcane nature of its deception, instigated a new epoch in aggressive messaging and took Obama’s 2008 Londonderry remarks and obliterated the fact that Obama was at that time quoting the words of a McCain staffer. Obama’s statement was cut to “If we keep talking about the economy, we’re going to lose” — with the erroneous implication that the “we” referred not to McCain’s 2008 effort but to the current Obama campaign.
The non-partisan web site Politifact, which evaluates the accuracy of political ads, said that the Romney spot was “ridiculously misleading,” and gave the ad its worst rating, “pants on fire.”
The significance of the spot lies in its explicit distortion of an opponent’s remark, but the spot’s direct duplicity is also the latest step in the transgression by political operatives of formerly agreed-upon ethical boundaries. What was once considered sleazy becomes the norm.
Over the past four decades, moral standards governing the conduct of political competition have been violated by both left and right, with two goals: winning elections and making money. In this endeavor, the early 1980s were a fertile period.