The Republican Reliance on Mendacity

by John Lawrence

The dust-up over the recent Congressional Budget Office (CBO) report on the Affordable Care Act (ACA) illustrates a well-documented truth: underlying a substantial proportion of Republican policies is a persistent absence of truthfulness. Ultimately, one challenge conservatives will confront in improving their miserable brand is that so many of their policies and arguments are insincere, hypocritical or downright misrepresentations.  And sooner or later, a political platform constructed on a foundation of mendacity will crumble, although I wouldn’t place a bet on when that might happen.

The response to the CBO report offers a dramatic illustration of the longstanding Republican reliance on the twisting of truth in pursuit of political objectives.  “By 2017, CBO projects that people will be working fewer hours precisely because of the incentives created in this law,” Budget Committee Chairman Paul Ryan breathlessly noted, “and these changes disproportionately affect low-wage workers.”   The Wall Street Journal similarly intoned on February 4 that “the new health law is projected to reduce the total number of hours Americans work by the equivalent of 2.3 million full-time jobs in 2021.”

“ Translation,” Ryan helpfully explained, “Washington is making the poverty trap much worse.” 

If Ryan is going to add “translator” to his many skills, he needs a good “English to English” dictionary.  His explanation is not what the CBO said at all.  Rather, CBO noted that some workers would no longer feel compelled to stay at a job simply to qualify for the health insurance the employer provided.  Instead, workers – whether low income or not – could look for other jobs, increase volunteer activities, retire, take care of their children or elderly parents, or elect to do many other activities that help their families and their communities without being trapped by the very “job lock” that Ryan and other conservatives decried only a few years ago.  Eviscerating those who seek to escape the “job lock” that conservatives identified as a goal of any health reform plan is sort of a first cousin to Republicans decrying the socialistic “individual mandate” in the ACA which originated with the Heritage Foundation as an alternative to the Clinton health care bill in the early 1990s.  Besides, I thought conservatives wanted Americans to spend more time strengthening their family units.

Hypocrisy and mendacity are the sine quo non of Republican rhetoric.  Sure, Democrats exaggerate and tweak the truth, but not with the reliability and venality that has come to be the hallmark of the Right.  Indeed, the underlying (and highly successful) strategy of Newt Gingrich, Frank Luntz and Karl Rove is to apply an ominous appellation to a Democratic target and hammer relentlessly, regardless of the  inaccuracy or hyperbole of the accusation).  The strategy is hardly novel, but no group in American politics has played it as cunningly or uninterruptedly as the Hard Right. 

The Right’s obsession with prevarication is not limited to misrepresenting what Democrats say or do, e.g., alleging “death panels” as a central tenet of the ACA, or asserting that a tax on estates that kicks in at $3 million would pose a danger to small business owners and farmers.  The most central tenets of conservative thought are premised on ideologically inspired balderdash that persists despite years, even decades, of disproof.  Think: lower taxes will cut deficits, or the corollary, slash discretionary spending to reduce deficits (while preserving low tax rates for the wealthiest.  I won’t even reiterate the shameless hypocrisy of Republicans who castigate federal spending, including the 2009 stimulus, while simultaneously pulling strings to ensure their districts secured funding from the law.

Which brings me to a new outrage that is even more stunningly egregious than the misrepresentation of the CBO report.  Not content with raising vast sums of money from fat cat right wing special interests, Republicans have now embarked upon a cynical strategy to mislead Americans into funding efforts to defeat Democratic candidates.  The plan is almost stunning in its cynicism and deceit. 

The clever conservatives of the National Republican Campaign Committee (NRCC) have been quietly buying up dozens of URLs to confuse contributors who intend to donate to Democratic candidates.  In fact, the money will be used against the very same candidates.  Hilarious!  Worthy of Dick Tuck, a master political trickster of the 1950s – but not the agent of a national political party.   To date, the Republicans have created at least 15 deceptive sites featuring large photos of Democratic officeholders or candidates, and including the candidate’s name.  Even a careful reader could be forgiven for believing that a web page that screams, for example, “Kirkpatrick for Congress,” is likely to be raising money for Rep. Ann Kirkpatrick, an Arizona Democrat.

But according to the fine print, the money will be used against Rep. Kirkpatrick, who is described as “a huge embarrassment to Arizona.” If you read the fine print.  Which many do as often as they read the “terms and policy” on other websites before clicking “accept.”

An NRCC spokesperson not only confesses to the orchestrated deception, but promises to roll out many more misleading URLs during the election season, siphoning needed funds away from Democrats and into the pockets of their GOP opponents.   One need not be a Democratic sympathizer to be appalled by the NRCC ruse; Time magazine asserts that the “NRCC has set up that are clearly designed to trick the viewer.”  Not to be deterred, GOP spokesperson Daniel Scarpinato responds by asserting that Democratic websites are similarly “deceptive” — because they do not acknowledge a candidate’s support for President Obama’s programs.  Scarpinato declares he is “proud of this program.”

Fortunately, the NRCC’s deceptive behavior is receiving the legal response it warrants.  The Democratic Committee of Atlantic County (NJ) will file a complaint challenging ads being run against Bill Hughes, Jr., who is running against longtime incumbent Rep. Frank LoBiondo.  Expect more lawsuits to follow.

But it should not take litigation to shut down such blatantly deceptive tactics.  Federal Election Commission regulation 102.14 prohibits an unauthorized committee like the NRCC from using a candidate’s name in an advertisement like the websites.  Former FEC general Counsel Larry Noble, who now runs the bipartisan Americans for Campaign Reform, has little doubt the phony websites violate FEC rules.  But Republicans have obstructed enforcement actions by the equally balanced FEC which, under the best of circumstances, is unlikely to act during the current election season as the fake websites proliferate and siphon off Democratic dollars.

If lawsuits and regulatory action are unlikely to halt this latest example of the NRCC’s reliance on deception, maybe Democrats should offer Republicans the old bargain devised by Adlai Stevenson during the 1952 presidential campaign. If Republicans stopped telling lies about him, Stevenson offered, he would stop telling the truth about them.  Not a bad bargain, but then again, it would leave Republicans without much to say.