Thursday, August 30, 2012

Truths And Consequences

On a KPCC-FM talk show this morning, someone said that politics is a lot like the courtroom, where neither prosecution nor defense usually concedes the validity of the other's narrative. The problem with the analogy is that in court, both sides are working with the same facts. Not so in politics, where facts are almost infinitely malleable. If an attorney shows a jury a document with 43 vital words removed, as the Republicans showed the public this week in Tampa to set up their "We Built That" theme, her opponent will swiftly point out what's missing. For evidentiary assessments and challenges in politics, we rely first on journalists and then the opposition.

These days you need a scorecard to keep track of the political agendas of media personalities and outlets. I like bloggers like Andrew Sullivan who aggregate a wide range of responses. He does so here for Rep. Paul Ryan's speech last night, in which he called on Barack Obama to be accountable for his record while failing to be accountable for his own contributions to the deficit and debt as well as his role in torpedoing Simpson-Bowles.

Sullivan calls it a list of Ryan's lies. A legal friend tells me he doesn't like to hear that word applied to misleading political discourse. He says that it's usually not a lie to leave something out. Plus some of Obama's critics argue that the GOP's tape gap exposed the underlying truth of Obama's skepticism about capitalism.

Then there's the opposition as truth teller, which can also be a thin reed. As the KPCC observer said, the prosecution rests tonight, and the defense has its turn next week. In a comment on an earlier post, my St. John's brother Barry Fernelius wrote:

If I were putting together the Democratic convention, I'd feature a segment that first shows the edited version of Obama's remarks, followed by a complete version. Then, I'd hammer home the central message. "The point is that when we succeed, we succeed because of our individual initiative, but also because we do things together."

An operative has probably suggested something exactly along those lines around a conference table at Obama HQ. A great idea as long as it doesn't sound too defensive. Maybe there's a Romney clip Democrats can selectively edit to trigger people's inchoate concerns about his foreign policy naivete: My opponent has completely attack...Russia...using... Ann's horse Rafalca! Overall we can anticipate a Democratic convention with a comparable mendacity quotient, since that's the way the game is being played. The candidate who opts out loses.

This gladiatorial model has its advantages. Leaders who fight hard and even ruthlessly can come in handy in a dangerous world. And like politics, citizenship isn't beanball. Voters who don't pay attention to candidates' falsehoods deserve the leaders they get.

Besides, the political free market has a way of weeding out those whose narratives aren't authentic or don't resonate with the nation's needs. That's one of the reasons I'm curious about how well Mitt Romney will scour, as Abraham Lincoln (as quoted by Richard Nixon) would say. Is he a conservative who waxed moderate to thrive politically in Massachusetts or a moderate who veered to the right to get nominated for president? Or maybe he has no fixed convictions beyond faith, family, profit, and winning, which would make him the first post-ideological, technocratic president. So far, it's a question that's even defied the fact checkers.

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