Like the rest of humanity, all politicians bend the truth now and then. Sometimes they break it. And yes, some of them are just plain liars. But until recently, all politicians, no matter how dishonest, have paid at least this tribute to honesty: they have acted like it mattered.
After all, even the worst of political liars -- think, for example, of Richard Nixon -- have always tried to avoid getting caught.
Until, that is, Mitt Romney and Paul Ryan came along.
Romney and Ryan's dishonesty may be the most cynically blatant ever seen. Their contempt for voters' judgment appears to be so deep that they see no reason to worry about being exposed.
But have they gone too far? Will the traditional media finally hold them accountable?
- Mitt Romney's first campaign ad -- rated "Pants On Fire" by PolitiFact -- showed an edited clip of Barack Obama apparently saying "If we keep talking about the economy, we're going to lose." Obama was actually quoting John McCain, in 2008. When challenged, Romney's unapologetic -- and nonsensical -- response was, "What's sauce for the goose is now sauce for the gander."
- When asked on CNN about whether Romney had tacked too far to the right in the primary, his chief adviser famously had this to say, "I think you hit a reset button for the fall campaign. Everything changes. It's almost like an Etch A Sketch. You can kind of shake it up, and we start all over again."
- Questioned about a Romney ad's race-baiting claim that Obama has removed the work requirement from welfare -- given Four Pinnochios by the Washington Post -- a Romney campaign leader said, "We're not going let our campaign be dictated by fact-checkers."
- Paul Ryan's convention speech featured such brazen whoppers as this: "[Obama] created a bipartisan debt commission. They came back with an urgent report. He thanked them, sent them on their way and then did exactly nothing." Ryan himself served on that commission -- and voted to block its recommendations.
As Bill Clinton said (about Ryan repeating the campaign's lie about Medicare cuts), "It takes some brass to attack a guy for doing what you did."
We have to agree with Matthew Dowd, chief political strategist for former President Bush's 2004 re-election campaign, who criticized Ryan's convention speech for its many falsehoods, saying, "at some point, the truth should matter."
Now, as outrageous as these lies are -- and there are of course many more where these came from -- by themselves, they don't add up to much. They're just a list, and voters are used to tuning out lists of charges and counter charges -- especially when reporters refuse to fact-check them for fear of appearing "biased."
But where things can get interesting is if the list turns into a story.
It looks like that's exactly what's happening: Romney and Ryan have lied so often, and so shamelessly, that they are creating a story, one about the sheer over-the-top, ground-breaking scale of their lying.
That's where they may finally be in trouble. Because as much as reporters fear fact-checking, they love a good story more.
And we see signs that that story is catching on, for example here, here and here.
Think about the damage that can be done by a bad story, such as the one about John Kerry as the Flip-Flopper. Whether or not it was justified (we think not), it stuck, and it hurt.
So, ironically, Romney and Ryan will probably suffer for their lies, not because of the facts, but because of a story: the story of the first candidates for high office who not only didn't tell the truth, but didn't even pretend to care about it.