by Neil H. Buchanan
Several of my recent posts (here, here, and here) have confronted various forms of pandering and dishonesty from Republican presidential candidates Rand Paul and Jeb Bush. (I realize that Bush has not yet officially announced his candidacy, but please.) Although the comments in response to each of those posts have been generally constructive, an unmistakable theme has started to emerge. None of my commenters has been harsh, but a blunt version of the meta-narrative might go like this: "Wow, you noticed that politicians are dishonest. Stop the presses! What the heck do you expect politicians to do? They lie. They pander. Get over it."
Again, no actual commenter has offered such an unvarnished response, and I am deliberately setting this up in its extreme form. Even so, the "nothing to see here" tenor of some of the responses has caused me to wonder whether there is any value in pointing out that a group of notoriously dishonest people is being dishonest. And if there is value in it, how does one decide which deceptions to call out, and which to ignore? I do not claim to have any definitive answers to the latter question (although the answer to the first is obviously and emphatically "yes"), but I think it is worthwhile to think through a few of the issues in play here.
As an initial matter, no one could imagine that we should try to expose every half-truth, every deceptive phrasing, and so on. In my post earlier this week regarding Rand Paul's dishonesty, I noted that even though Paul "was utterly dishonest about it, ... reporters will
selectively decide which lies are 'just a part of politics, and what can
you do?' " Even PolitiFact and the other journalistic operations that try to call out dishonesty do so only selectively. Triage is the order of the day.
The very existence of those journalistic truth-squad groups, of course, attests to the perceived value of trying to keep political dishonesty from getting out of hand. Even polluted environments have measurably different degrees of degradation, and efforts to keep things less bad are still worthwhile. This is, in fact, simply another example of not letting the perfect be the enemy of the good. It would be crazy to say nothing more than, "Wow, a politician wasn't totally honest. Why is anyone surprised?"
The real question, then, is how to figure out which lies and deceptions to highlight. Looking at my post about Rand Paul again, I raised the possibility that Paul was looking at net federal debt instead of gross federal debt in order to make his point. Doing so would be inconsistent for Paul, because he and his Republican colleagues prefer to shout about the much larger (and thus scarier sounding) gross number. Even so, I wrote that "one can hardly expect him to be intellectually
consistent." If the facts had shown that Paul's claim that debt is "tripling under Obama" had been true for net debt but not for gross debt, therefore, the most that one could have said is that Paul was being opportunistic. Even I, naif that I am, would have found little reason to think that such a deception seriously worsened the debate.
Of course, the facts did not support Paul's claim, under any set of numbers. And although he was not engaging in the opportunism that I had imagined, it was actually much worse. As I described in that post, the Paul campaign now says that "doubling under Bush, tripling under Obama" is meant to mean "doubling under Bush, and compared to the beginning of Bush's first term, tripling under Obama." For PolitiFact to call that one "Half True" was the ultimate in grading on the curve, but at least they called out this ridiculous sophistry.
Perhaps, however, I am putting too much stock in the idea that any of this matters. In the title to this post, I ask whether it is possible that Republicans like Paul are lying for no reason. This question is an attempt to confront a possible defense of political lying that goes like this, "Yes, everyone knows that they do it, so it's harmless." A variation on this argument is, "Well, any politician would be crazy not to choose his words strategically, and voters know that. But you can't expect a politician not to try to take every advantage, can you?"
The general answer to those questions is, "Yes, you can. Politicians will only do what they think they can profitably get away with, so it is important to put a price on dishonesty." The more pointed response, however, is to note that the cynical what-can-you-do-about-it response implicitly presumes that the liars are lying for no reason. If everyone knows what they are doing, and if everyone is appropriately cynical about it, then taking the time to deceive would be pointless. Only a true believer in rational actor theory could imagine that politicians have no reason to think that lying and deceiving might have beneficial political results.
Consider the Republicans' use of the term "death tax" as a substitute for "estate tax." The standard, oh-so-bored defense of this is to say something like this: "Well, it is a tax that is levied at death. So it's not dishonest. And everyone knows that they are talking about the estate tax, so there is nothing wrong with using either term." What we know, however, is that "death tax" was introduced into the political lexicon a generation ago, after Republican polling operatives spent a great deal of time, money, and effort trying to figure out the best way to demonize the estate tax.
It is possible, I suppose, that the payoff from that effort was ultimately dissipated, when Democrats (along with journalists and do-gooder academics like me) objected to the term. Possible, but unlikely. Republicans have certainly shown that they are willing to drop attack lines that stop working (e.g., complaining about the ACA's website), but the Death Tax rhetoric rolls on.
Another recent example arose in discussions on the TaxProf discussion list, which then spilled over into a Washington Post Fact Checker article about the term "IRS Code." It is obvious that Republicans have adopted that term because they want to blame the unpopular IRS for the tax code that the IRS did not write. Asked about Ted Cruz's use of that term, the senator's spokesman angrily responded that Cruz "calls it the ‘IRS Code’ because that is what it is. Its name is
literally the Internal Revenue Code. Some may disagree with that label,
but that does not change the fact about what it is called." Apparently, the spokesman is unaware of how acronyms work.
A different response was offered by a tax professor: "Of course politicians use terms for political purposes, that shouldn’t
be a surprise. But that doesn’t make the ‘IRS Code’ inherently
misleading." Yes, it is true that politicians' use of terms for political purposes does not make "IRS Code" inherently misleading. Of course, it also does not make "IRS Code" inherently not misleading. That politicians are often dishonest does not tell us anything at all about this particular political attack line. What we do know is that Congress over the years has written an unpopular tax code, and because of Republicans' insistence, it has under-funded the agency that enforces that code. Then, Republicans take the unpopularity of that very agency as an opportunity to shift responsibility in the public's mind for the tax code onto the IRS. More to the point, Republicans must think that this turn of phrase works.
On the other hand, I have noted the odd persistence of Republicans' claim that progressive taxation is inspired by "envy" and "jealousy" by the unwashed masses against their betters. Although that claim has no evidence to support it, the Republicans cannot let it go. I recently suggested that perhaps the reason Republicans hold onto this nonsense is not that they think it is politically valuable, but because they so deeply believe in their own superiority that they cannot understand the world in any other way.
It is, therefore, possible that Republicans' lying and deceit is sometimes based on something other than perceived political gain. Even so, these people are very good at figuring out what they want and getting it. They are not even especially concerned with hiding what they are doing (and they are certainly not ashamed). Efforts to call them out on their various deceptions might not always work, but the jaded retort that "all politicians lie" lets them off far too easily.