Politicians Lie? Not Shocking. But Why Don’t We Care More?


Lies. Falsehoods. Misleading statements. Whatever you call them, they’re part of the political process. Reuters’ blog has a worthy piece making the case that lying is part of election season. No matter how devoted we are to our favorite candidates, we’re probably lying to ourselves if we think they’d rate a perfect score on the truth meter.

This is the kind of info I’m keeping in my hip pocket for when I run for president of Newt Gingrich’s moon colony. "Today I promise you, if I’m elected, every city block will have an oxygen bar — and each citizen will have an American flag-themed moon suit featuring an image of ‘Hacksaw’ Jim Duggan. Malektor! (That means ‘God Bless’ in Moon Talk — a fake language I’ll create to help sell more tchotchkes to tourists.)"

The candidates lie about each other, they lie about themselves, they lie about issues they know intimately, and they lie about issues they barely understand. Of Romney, the Washington Post‘s Dana Milbank writes today that the candidate has changed, reversed and obliterated his views so many times that “Whatever Romney’s positions were, they are no longer.”

If either presidential candidate met you, he’d tell you a lie within 15 seconds of shaking your hand, and if he knew he were going to meet your mother, he’d invent a special set of lies for her. Politicians lie not because they’re wicked – though some are – but because they’ve learned that political markets rarely reward honest campaigners. Say what you will about Ralph Nader and H. Ross Perot, but they ran relatively honest campaigns on the issues, and the voters rejected them. The political market spoke many years ago and continues to speak: Telling the truth is not great for campaigns – and if it were, more people would be doing it…

Some of the lies the candidates tell are innocuous and are not held against them, as Kathleen Hall Jamieson and Paul Waldman write in their 2003 book, The Press Effect: Politicians, Journalists, and the Stories that Shape the Political World. For example, “It’s great to be in Kansas City” is a completely acceptable lie, as is the platitude, “Nothing is more important to me than the future of our children,” Jamieson and Waldman write. Nor do voters care much if candidates claim to have “led the fight” for a piece of legislation if all they did was vote for it or sign it. Moving up the ladder of lying, candidates rarely are forced to pay a political price when they butcher the truth, even in presidential debates. ”You can say anything you want during a debate and 80 million people hear it,” said Vice President George H.W. Bush’s press secretary Peter Teeley in 1984, adding a “so what?” to the fact that reporters might document a candidate’s debate lies. ”Maybe 200 people read it or 2,000 or 20,000.”…

Campaigns can survive the most blatant political lies, but candidates must be careful not to lie about themselves – or even appear to lie about themselves, as Jamieson and Waldman demonstrate in a long chapter about Al Gore’s image problems. Gore never claimed to have invented the Internet or to have discovered Love Canal. He did, however, falsely claim during the 1988 presidential contest to have gotten “a bunch of people indicted and sent to jail” while working as a reporter. Voters demand authenticity in their presidential candidates, even if the authenticity is fake, as was George W. Bush’s just-folks manner. To lie about an issue is to be a politician. To lie about a corporation is to be a public relation executive. To lie about a legal matter is to be a lawyer. To lie about international power relations is to be a diplomat. But to lie about who you are is to be a hypocrite, and voters despise hypocrites.

The pervasiveness of campaign lies tells us something we’d rather not acknowledge, at least not publicly: On many issues, voters prefer lies to the truth. That’s because the truth about the economy, the future of Social Security and Medicare, immigration, the war in Afghanistan, taxes, the budget, the deficit and the national debt is too dismal to contemplate. As long as voters cast their votes for candidates who make them feel better, candidates will continue to lie. And to win.