As I feared, Toledo becoming the perceived ground zero of the presidential election has meant a volume of politicking in this part of the country that is almost suffocating. Yesterday we had a visit from Bill Clinton, and I suspect we’ll be seeing more of the candidates themselves before Tuesday. The attention and advertising in and of itself would be bad enough, and the nastiness of the campaign — earlier today I saw anti-Obama ads online that equated women voting for Obama with battered women making excuses for their batterers’ behaviour — is nothing short of atrocious, but the crux of Romney’s own advertising in Toledo is based on what is essentially a huge lie, a colossal whopper that’s made national press for the blowback it’s received. Romney’s campaign is couching the argument in the thinnest veneer of factual statements, though, and if the tactic works then it could very well flip Ohio to Romney. With Virginia and Florida both starting to tilt in Obama’s favour — his response to Sandy can only be doing him good — perhaps Ohio could ultimately become irrelevant, but for now it’s clear that we in Toledo are still the primary focus of at least the Romney campaign.
There are a few factors that have made Ohio such a hard nut for Romney to crack. As I’ve previously discussed, the combination of pro-Obama support thanks to the auto bailout and anti-Republican sentiment from Governor Kasich trying to cripple public unions make it hard for Republicans to gain much traction here; conservatives have dumped tens of millions of dollars into our Senate election this year, trying to unseat Democrat Sherrod Brown with a far-right “boy wonder” state Treasurer who’s younger than I am, but Brown has held a fairly consistent lead in the polls all year. I’ve also heard that Obama’s campaign staff from 2008 never really left the state after the last election, and were here to give support to Democratic causes the past four years, so there was no need for them to reorganize for this campaign. Obama also has many more field offices in the state, and he’s paying his workers half of what Romney’s paying his, helping stretch Obama’s dollars against the tsunami of money being thrown at Republicans in the wake of the Citizens United decision.
A week ago Romney launched what appears to be his final line of attack on Obama for we Toledoans to consider, an attack that is essentially founded on falsehoods. Romney’s advertisements in the general election have twisted the truth enough to make Cirque du Soleil performers blush with envy, starting with a spot that uses a clip of Obama speaking in 2008 and insinuating he’s talking about this year’s election. Later, when Obama enacted changes to the welfare programme that Romney himself, while Governor of Massachusetts, asked then-President Bush for, Romney’s campaign falsely claimed in national commercials, and on the stump, that Obama had removed the work requirement for welfare, an attack clearly meant to evoke the old “welfare queen” racial attacks of the Reagan era. (The Romney campaign has started airing that ad again in some battleground states for the close of the campaign.) Both times Romney’s campaign was confronted by members of the press who pointed out that these attacks were just plain untrue, and both times the campaign doubled down on the message. As one of Romney’s pollsters so succinctly put it, they’re “not going to let [their] campaign be dictated by fact-checkers.” At least they’re honest about that much.
By one count, Mitt Romney and his campaign have lied over nine hundred times since the start of the year. Now they’ve launched a major rhetorical offencive based on falsehoods that’s directly targeted to people in this part of the country, and again their response to people fact-checking them is to repeat their claims louder and more frequently. If this is the kind of politicking and rhetoric we’re to expect in a potential Romney presidency, I can’t think of anyone, regardless of political beliefs, who could cast a vote for Romney with a clear conscience. This level of deception, particularly when it’s been a running theme of the campaign, should be nothing short of a disqualifying condition for holding any kind of public office, let alone the single most powerful executive position in United States government.
It all started a week ago downstate in Defiance, Ohio, when Mitt Romney told a crowd, “I saw a story today that one of the great manufacturers in this state, Jeep — now owned by the Italians — is thinking of moving all production to China.” The choice of Jeep here is no accident; Toledo is the home of Jeep, and our Jeep plant just off of I-75 is so much a part of our city’s economy that removing it would probably cripple the city for decades. The thought of Jeep moving out of Toledo, let alone America as a whole, is enough to send shivers down the spines of nearly all Toledoans.
The thing is, it’s not about to happen. The only story that Romney might have conceivably read was a post from a far-right blog that misinterpreted a Bloomberg business report that said Jeep is considering building Jeeps in China for the Chinese market. Jeep is not moving out of Toledo; far from it, they’re about to add another shift to their plant here, creating another 1,100 new jobs. That’s been in the local news a fair amount. Now, note that Romney’s statement is technically not a lie, because he says he “saw a story” that included this false information. Whether or not he repeated the story’s claims knowing that they were false can be debated, but he’s at least given himself a measure of plausible deniability if confronted with a direct accusation of lying.
Under any reasonable standards of speaking, when confronted with the fact that you passed along false information, you have an obligation to correct the false claim, or at least to stop using it. As with their previous false statements, though, Romney’s campaign just keeps saying it more and more, crafting television and radio advertisements and swamping Toledo with them. The new advertisements don’t say that Jeep is going to pull out of Toledo (or anywhere else in America), but they do repeat that Jeep is thinking about building autos in China. They haven’t walked back the idea that Jeep will stop building cars in America, so it carries on in the new advertisements as a kind of silent undercurrent. Those ads are pretty much blanketing Toledo media right now, even with auto executives, among others, coming out and confirming that the arguments in Romney’s ads are patently false.
After each of the first two debates Romney’s campaign had to walk back things Romney said during the debate that didn’t conform to his official positions; in the first debate he claimed his health care plan would cover people with pre-existing conditions (which it doesn’t), then in the second debate he said he thought women should have access to contraceptive care (which he doesn’t). His campaign walking back things he’s said in mass media has occurred so often that I can’t believe these are accidents; I think he’s deliberately saying one thing to the media, where he’s likely to reach the undecided low-information voters he needs to get if he’s to win the election, then he walks it back later to satisfy the far-right elements of his party who actually pay attention to these things and want him to govern from positions of extreme conservatism in all areas of government. Likewise, I think he’s deliberately not correcting the claim about Jeep moving its American production to China so low-information voters will keep having that doubt in their minds when they go to the polls.
Yes, it’s been in the news in Toledo that Jeep is adding jobs to its Toledo plant, but as with so much of right-wing media, repeating a lie often enough can make some people believe it’s true. As much negative press as the Romney campaign has gotten for this tactic, and rightfully so, if enough Toledoans are misled into thinking that Jeep will shutter their American plants, and vote for Romney next week, that could conceivably be what puts him in the White House.
Politicians stretching, bending, and outright denying the truth has been going on for as long as politics has existed, I know, but I can’t recall an instance in my life when any campaign, let alone a major party campaign for the presidency, has distorted so frequently, so dramatically, and so shamelessly. Even for people who hate President Obama for whatever reason, I find it hard to believe they can feel good about casting votes for Romney after the campaign he’s run. How can they be sure that he isn’t going to just shift back to his old “centrist” positions once he’s in office and renege on the promises he’s made to conservatives?
Romney’s lack of transparency, in everything from his tax returns to the details of his economic plans, is bad enough; you can’t ask people to cast informed votes if you make a point of not informing them about so many important things. Even by modern American political standards, though, his campaign has taken such liberties with the facts, and put forward such bald-faced untruths on such a consistent basis, that I don’t see how any impartial observer could fail to conclude that Mitt Romney is fundamentally unfit to serve in any kind of public office, let alone the presidency. He is a chronic prevaricator, and if he manages to win the election next week then he will have done so as a result of an advertising campaign in my backyard built on a mountain of falsehoods. I understand the desire not to vote for Barack Obama — I voted for Jill Stein for president when I mailed in my ballot a couple of weeks ago — but I absolutely cannot believe that any thoughtful American could come to the conclusion that Mitt Romney has proven himself capable of serving as our president.