“Lie of the Year,” people in the establishment press called it. As bad as it gets.
To which professional strategist Stu Stevens, head thinker for the Romney campaign in 2012, says: Nonsense, gentleman, our work on this ad was pristine. A model of accuracy, upholding a standard in verification beyond what is normally seen in politics.
Surreal exchange, right? But it happened the other day, as I will soon explain.
But first, a brief check-in with common sense.
1. Standard deviation from the verifiable fact
To some extent all political campaigns are run against reality. No mystery lies about it. There is a tendency to portray the opponent as the embodiment of everything wrong in the country. There is a tendency to portray your own candidate as right about everything, and a great husband and father or wife and mother to boot. There is a thing called confirmation bias. We may safely posit a kind of standard deviation from the verifiable fact that is part of the messy carnival of politics. It is juvenile to make too much of it, or to get worked up about its appearance on one side of the ledger, while minimizing or ignoring its solid presence on the other.
However, it can also happen, and here we drift out of “common sense” and into a political argument with consequences for press treatment… It can also happen that a political party works itself into a position where it has to run against reality in a more serious way, beyond some standard range of distortion. Because, for example, a substantial portion of its base is committed to propositions that aren’t so, like: Obama is for sure a socialist and probably a Muslim. Or: what unites the various factions is thinning, and so a demonized other and paranoid charges serve as the “glue” keeping parts of the coalition together. Non-standard deviation from verifiable facts becomes normal politics for the party in such a weakened state. Wilder charges must be made for reasons internal to the party’s malfunctioning state of denial.
2. Agreed upon untruths.
For this thesis (in which I join) Thomas Mann and Norman Ornstein’s April 27, 2012 Op Ed in the Washington Post is the standard text. Part of the reason for that is Mann of the Brookings Institution and Ornstein of the American Enterprise Institute are establishment figures par excellence, think tank centrists and students of How Washington Works who for that reason have been among the most quoted men in political journalism over the span of their influence. So when they say it, the meaning is somewhat different:
The GOP has become an insurgent outlier in American politics. It is ideologically extreme; scornful of compromise; unmoved by conventional understanding of facts, evidence and science; and dismissive of the legitimacy of its political opposition.
One of the flash points during the campaign–and one I wrote about–was the tension between Romney aides doing what it takes to win and fact-checkers in the press, who had to cope with distortions that sometimes went beyond the normal range. These tensions led to the now famous statement by Romney pollster Neil Newhouse: “We’re not going to let our campaign be dictated by fact-checkers.”
That was a true statement. If they had to bend more facts beyond the sort of breaking point that establishment journalists had set up, it was not because they were professional liars or more mendacious than your average campaign Joe, but because political fictions — agreed-upon untruths — were doing more of the work in holding the Republican Party together, even though the Democrats and the Obama campaign relied on distortions too, sometimes outrageously so. (A list of the ones that concerned me, written during the campaign.)
That’s what Norm Ornstein and Thomas Mann were trying to try say to the sober-minded political professionals they wanted to reach. It’s not you, Stu: your party has become an outlier. Of course Stuart Stevens didn’t want to hear that. He didn’t believe it, and never accepted it.
3. Re-litigating the Lie of the Year.
The campaign has been over for almost three months. Here and there, the Republican Party has started the confrontation with its ruling fictions that it could not have afforded during the struggle to get Romney elected. But for at least one of the guys who ran the Romney campaign, the tourniquet of denial has tightened since the election returns came in.
Witness the letter Stevens recently sent to the Washington Post fact checker column, asking to re-litigate a Romney campaign ad that had suggested, using weasel wording, that Jeep was shipping American jobs to China. (Romney said this on the campaign trail too: “Jeep, now owned by the Italians, is thinking of moving all production to China.”) Stevens thinks that new facts announced recently show that the original ad was true. “I would hope that you would take another look at this and stress test it for accuracy away from the heat of a campaign,” he wrote to the Washington Post’s Glenn Kessler.
Kessler agreed. He took another look and re-awarded the ad Four Pinnocchios, the highest level of mendacity the Post system registers. Keep in mind: this is the same ad that won Politifact’s Lie of the Year award. The Politifact researchers noted that not only did Romney make the false claim himself, and then work it into an ad, but the campaign then “stood by the claim, even as the media and the public expressed collective outrage against something so obviously false.” (The Weekly Standard’s take: a pathetic case of liberal bias; the ad is true.)
But it gets even more strange. For Stu Stevens isn’t saying, “Oh come on, fact checkers, it was bad, but it wasn’t that bad.” He’s not trying to make an outrageously false claim seem routine– within the standard deviation for campaign rhetoric. No, he’s upholding the “Jeep shipping jobs to China” statement as exceptionally well-founded, a kind of model for people in his business. “I believe that the ad and Romney’s statement were completely accurate, unusually so by any standards,” he wrote to Kessler. Thus we have:
Lie of the year!
(Folds arms.) “Unusually accurate.”
We double checked. Still a total lie.
(Stamps foot) “I shall not hear of it!”
Why is this a conversation that Stuart Stevens wants to have? He’s initiating these events, after all. For what reason? Is there even a strategy here?
4. Both sides do it most of the time.
It’s worth nothing that Glenn Kessler, the Washington Post fact checker, and Michael Scherer of Time magazine, along with others who do fact checking or cover politics full time, are convinced that it’s simply too hard to say which side is distorting the facts more in a hard fought campaign. Both sides do it most of the time, they say. People tend to see mendacity in the other guy and forgive their own side’s BS, as Scherer explained at some length in Time. This is from Scherer’s Fact Checking and the False Equivalence Dilemma:
Kessler at the Washington Post has what he calls the Pinocchio tracker, which gives you the average number of Pinocchio’s for a given politician for the statements he has reviewed. Obama gets an average of 2.04 Pinocchios out of 4, while Romney gets an average of 2.35 Pinocchios out of 4. Romney has had 10 statements that received the maximum [number of] Pinocchios, compared to six statements for Obama that received the maximum. Does this mean anything? According to Kessler, not really.
Kessler has repeatedly said that he thinks all politicians “will twist or spin information if they believe it will advance their political interests.” To him that’s the right starting point. He has “a both sides do it” thesis, born of experience, and unfriendly to… The GOP has become an insurgent outlier in American politics. Stevens should be happy with Kessler, who is willing to slap Four Pinocchios on a particularly bad ad but usually resists conclusions like “The GOP is a party unmoved by conventional understanding of facts.”
5. Embrace asymmetry, avoid distortion.
Look at Mann and Ornstein’s op-ed, again:
We understand the values of mainstream journalists, including the effort to report both sides of a story. But a balanced treatment of an unbalanced phenomenon distorts reality. If the political dynamics of Washington are unlikely to change anytime soon, at least we should change the way that reality is portrayed to the public.
After the campaign they assessed the news media’s performance in meeting this challenge.
“The mainstream press really has such a difficult time trying to cope with asymmetry between the two parties’ agendas and connections to facts and truth,” said Mann, who has spent nearly three decades as a congressional scholar at the centrist Brookings Institution.
Mann and Ornstein had this advice for the press: “Don’t seek professional safety through the even-handed, unfiltered presentation of opposing views. Which politician is telling the truth? Who is taking hostages, at what risks and to what ends?”
Embrace asymmetry, in other words. That’s the way to avoid distortion.
6. Danger, journalists
Here I speculate: In his attempt to re-litigate a campaign ad that everyone else had nearly forgotten about, Stu Stevens is fighting Mann and Ornstein’s advice to the press, which comes from a key part of the Washington establishment. He has some advice of his own:
Danger, press corps. Don’t switch out of your symmetry-making machinery just yet. And don’t be so quick to declare “unbalanced phenomenon” conditions. For there is doubt. Even about your Lie of the Year, Four Pinocchios and all that– there is doubt. My advice: do seek professional safety. You are risking a lot when you try to declare: Which politician is telling the truth?
“Fierce arguments still rage over…” That’s the sentence you should bet on if you care about being right and avoiding distortion. Allow me to demonstrate…
And thus we have Stuart’s fierce argument, raging at a kind of consensus verdict in the political press about the mendacity of the Jeep ad.
“A balanced treatment of an unbalanced phenomenon distorts reality,” Mann and Ornstein had advised the press. Along with: “The mainstream press really has such a difficult time trying to cope with asymmetry between the two parties’ agendas and connections to facts and truth.”
“Even about your Lie of the Year there is doubt. So don’t try anything.” That’s what I hear Stuart Stevens saying back.