My new Verdict column, which was published yesterday, correctly anticipated one of Paul Ryan's tactics in last night's non-debate. I am not, however, taking a victory lap, because this was as easy to predict as anything in American politics: Ryan lied and evaded, and he looked people straight in the eye and looked simply shocked and hurt that anyone would question his honesty. The title of my column was: "Would I Lie to You? In the Debate and Elsewhere, Romney and Ryan Exploit the Manipulative Tactics of Car Salesmen (With Apologies to Car Salesmen)."
Readers old enough to remember the Eurythmics, a 1980's art rock duo, will now spend the rest of the day trying to get the tune and lyrics of a certain hit song out of their heads:
Would I lie to you?In addition to my arguments in that Verdict column and this morning's Dorf on Law post, I will offer a few further comments here.
Would I lie to you honey? (Oh, no, no, no)
Now would I say something that wasn't true?
I'm asking you sugar, would I lie to you?
First, when it comes to my prediction about Ryan's use of brazen lying, and then all but daring people to call him a liar, it is now clear that President Obama has been unfairly derided for his debate performance last week -- at least, by the people who blamed him for not calling Romney on his lies. Vice President Biden tried the most effective approach imaginable, which is to smile dismissively and call Ryan on his "malarkey," "stuff," and so on. This was in marked contrast to Obama, who simply tried to ignore the lying and get back to the facts. (He was still mediocre, but that is a different story.)
Even though I think that Biden's method was rather effective, it is notable that much of the Republican spin from last night's event has been to recoil in feigned horror at Biden's "disrespect" for his opponent. Had Obama been as direct with Romney and his lies, he surely would have been excoriated for being "un-Presidential." We are already being reminded of Al Gore's supposedly-unacceptable "sighing" during his first debate with George W. Bush in 2000, the blow-back from which caused Gore to go into a shell in their next debate.
Far be it from me to defend Obama's performance. It was not very good. But that is a far cry from being "abysmal," "disastrous," and all the other complaints coming from the media -- and from his own supporters. As I noted in my post this morning, the Romney campaign has clearly concluded that voters prefer politicians who seem moderate. For Obama to have gone on the attack would have surely been viewed with great distaste by swing voters, which would have led the same pack of pundits to vilify Obama for (as I can easily imagine a Beltway pundit writing) "squandering his greatest asset -- his reputation for not being a street fighter."
This is why the Romney campaign's "Would I Lie to You?" approach is so insidious. As I described in my Verdict column, generations of salesmen and con artists have succeeded by daring people to question their sincerity. I would not want to be in the Obama campaign right now, because I do not think that anyone has ever figured out a good way to respond to shameless liars.
Second, it is clear now that the Romney/Ryan camp has absolutely nothing more to say about their "plans" than to say that they have plans that will achieve certain laudable goals, without ever explaining how that will happen (either the actual policy changes, or how those policies would actually set in motion a chain of events leading to the predicted happy outcomes). Ryan repeatedly referred to their tax non-plan as being "premised" on the notion that it is possible to do all the good things they say, leading to the creation of 12 million jobs, and all that. Other than the "six studies" that supposedly back them up (but that either do not back them up at all, or are from non-credible sources, or a not really "studies" at all), Ryan simply extended Romney's strategy from last week, saying that their plan cannot do bad things, because it is a plan that is "premised" on doing good things. If not, they will not do it. Get it?
Even more ridiculous is the defense that Ryan and Romney offer to having provided no specifics. If they were to go into negotiations with a specific list of "demands," they say, the "my way or the highway" approach would poison the atmosphere. Biden scored a point last night when he pointed out that Ryan's iconic example, Reagan during the tax reform negotiations in the mid-80's, had very specific proposals when he entered the room. People who voted for Reagan in 1984 could have known exactly what Reagan's approach would be. Even though the process involved compromise, Reagan's people did not show up and say, "So, what do you think, guys? Any ideas?" Yet Ryan and Romney both continue to push the line that it is bad leadership to have specifics in mind. Everyone knows that they will be very specific when they get elected. But calling them on that now requires calling them dishonest. And, really, how could you even think that they would lie to you?
Finally, it is a genuine shame that Biden was not able to respond to one of the most outrageously slimy arguments of the night. Ryan argued that the economy this year is weaker than last year, and weaker than the year before that. After Biden said that the Republicans had blocked much of the Democrats' agenda, Ryan said that it is important to remember that the Democrats controlled Congress during Obama's first two years in office. So, he said, if the economy is weak, it cannot possibly be the Republicans' fault.
Wow. The very evidence that Ryan pointed to undermines his conclusion. The stimulus program ran in 2009 and 2010. Notwithstanding its inadequacies, it had its greatest impact in that two-year period, trailing off thereafter. When Republicans took over the House in January 2011, stimulus turned to austerity -- not the austerity that we have seen in Europe, but austerity nonetheless, especially in the states and cities (which were denied federal help that would have been forthcoming from a non-Tea Party-controlled Congress). It is true that Obama played along with too much of that game, but it was entirely a House Republican-driven process (led by Paul Ryan).
We thus have direct confirmation of what mainstream economics has known for decades, and that has been confirmed by the CBO and, most recently, the IMF (for the US and other advanced countries): When there was stimulus, the economy turned around; and when the stimulus ended, the economy stagnated. Ryan made it appear magically that the Democrats are responsible for the economic weakness that the Republicans so carefully manufactured over the past 21 months. And Ryan seemed so sincere!
On a day when I am feeling this cynical about the disappearing prospects for anything resembling honest public policy discussion, perhaps the best way to end this post is to return to the Eurythmics. (Sorry about planting this song in your heads, dear readers. A friend once told me that the only way to get a tune out of one's head is to think of the 60's song "She's Come Undone." The problem is that we now will have that song running through our heads for the rest of the day.) Sometimes, people who are being lied to wake up and realize that they have to face up to the manipulators. Perhaps there is a sliver of optimism there.
Tell you straight, no intervention
To your face, no deception
You're the biggest fake
That much is true
Had all I can take
Now I'm leaving you, you, you, ...