The lying game

David Cohen Former Deputy Assistant Sec. of the Interior
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I hope Stephanie Cutter, President Obama’s deputy campaign manager, was wearing a dress on Wednesday. Because if she was wearing pants, they would have been on fire. Bill Burton, founder of a pro-Obama super PAC, presumably does not have the option of wearing a dress. But he, along with Cutter and the entire Obama team, has a lot of explaining to do about the “Romney killed my wife” ad that has earned them so much infamy.

Burton’s super PAC, Priorities USA Action, produced the ad. Cutter, appearing on CNN on Wednesday, denied that the Obama campaign had coordinated with Priorities USA on the ad. Cutter also professed ignorance of the details of its storyline, in which a man named Joe Soptic blames his wife’s death on his layoff from a Bain-owned company. “I don’t know the facts about when Mr. Soptic’s wife got sick or the facts about his health insurance,” stammered Cutter.

She might also have added: “Do you want fries with that Whopper?” An audiotape has now surfaced of a conference call that Cutter hosted with Soptic in May, during which Soptic told the very same story. And it turns out that Soptic also appeared in an Obama campaign ad in May — apparently wearing the same shirt that he wore in the super PAC ad. But both the Obama campaign and Burton’s super PAC insist that the two organizations could not possibly have coordinated with each other — because that would be, you know, illegal. Burton, by the way, was President Obama’s deputy press secretary before he founded Priorities USA.

Burton, for his part, says that he is proud of the ad. And well you should be, young man. Just when Harry Reid appeared to set a standard for mean-spirited mendacity that could never be surpassed, you blew right by him like Usain Bolt on steroids. “Our spots have been factual,” Burton told The Huffington Post. And indeed they have, if by “factual” you mean hideously dishonest.

Soptic worked at GST Steel, a company acquired by Romney’s Bain Capital in 1993. In the ad, Soptic tells the story of how his family lost their healthcare when “Mitt Romney and Bain” closed his plant. “A short time after that, my wife became ill,” Soptic continued. She was admitted to a hospital. “There was nothing they could do for her,” said Soptic. “And she passed away in 22 days. I do not think Mitt Romney realizes what he’s done to anyone, and furthermore I do not think Mitt Romney is concerned.”

The ad left out a few important details: Bain didn’t close the plant until two years after Romney left to run the Olympics. At the time Soptic lost his job, his wife’s primary health coverage was through her own employer and that insurance remained in effect. His wife didn’t pass away until five years later, which was seven years after Romney left Bain. And a tape has now surfaced in which Soptic admits that Bain offered him a buyout.

GST was a struggling company when Bain acquired it. Bain worked to turn the company around for eight years, until it finally succumbed to competitive pressures that decimated the U.S. steel industry. It is likely that Soptic would have lost his job much earlier had it not been for Bain.

Burton has gamely tried to defend the ad. “I don’t think those stories should be off limits because they’re particularly heartbreaking,” he said. No, they should be off limits because they’re false.

Ads like this make one long for the civility and thoughtful discourse of “throw grandma from the cliff.” Are Democrats not ashamed at how “Hope and Change” has disintegrated into such repulsively dishonest mudslinging? Decent and intellectually honest Democrats must certainly be ashamed. But many have lost their ability to be ashamed, as evidenced by how few have condemned these recent outrages. Those who refuse to condemn this filth rationalize their acquiescence with a false narrative: Such tactics are necessary to combat equally dirty tactics from Romney. After all, isn’t Romney’s charge that Obama is gutting welfare reform just as bad? (Actually, the charge is entirely fair, and could never approach the offensiveness of the Obama camp’s personal attacks.) And isn’t it dishonest of Romney to repeatedly take Obama’s “you didn’t build that” remark out of context? (Actually, the full context makes it worse.)

President Obama cannot run on his record. His only path to re-election is through mudslinging. Many of his supporters will not admit that to themselves, and will manage to convince themselves that their attacks are justified. Their self-deception will be facilitated by their demonization of those with whom they disagree: The Republicans are so terrible, they will tell themselves, that it is just and moral to prevent them from coming to power by any means necessary. The ends justify the means.

Obama’s “low blow of the week” campaign — Harry Reid last week, cancer ad this week, who knows what next week — is certainly damaging the president’s image. But the Obama campaign appears to believe that, just as any press is supposedly good press, any distraction is a good distraction. So while we’re arguing about the Obama campaign’s nasty and trivial attacks, we’re not talking about things that are far from trivial: our longest bout of high unemployment since the Great Depression; the paralyzing uncertainty caused by Obamacare and the impending “fiscal cliff”; the debt crisis that threatens to destroy our future; and the size and scope of government that we want as a society. Trivial attacks distract us from the important issues. And that, clearly, is the point.

David B. Cohen served in the administration of President George W. Bush as U.S. Representative to the Pacific Community, as Deputy Assistant Secretary of the Interior, and as a member of the President’s Advisory Commission on Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders. He is the author of Left-Hearted, Right-Minded: Why Conservative Policies Are The Best Way To Achieve Liberal Ideals.