Editorial cartoon (1/18/12)

Several of the nation’s leading fact-checking organizations have repeatedly branded as “false” GOP candidate Mitt Romney’s insistence that Barack Obama has been running around the world “apologizing” for U.S. indiscretions of the past.

Yet the winner of the Iowa and New Hampshire Republican presidential contests continues to repeat that falsehood virtually everywhere he appears on the campaign trail, apparently adhering to the old adage that if a lie is repeated enough times, people will believe it’s the truth. And a compliant media will help spread it.

Romney has even written a book about it, called “No Apology.” He maintains that when Obama went on his tour of Europe early on in his administration, the president kowtowed to the leaders of other countries and insinuated that the U.S. had made mistakes in the past.

As The Washington Post’s Fact Checker reported, “We tracked down every statement Obama uttered that partisans claim was an apology and concluded that each one had been misquoted or taken out of context.” It went on to award Romney four Pinocchios for his assertion. PolitiFact, in turn, declared Romney’s statements false, as did others who took the time to double-check the president’s speeches and press conferences as he toured Europe.

But let’s not blame Romney for taking advantage of a tactic that has worked in the past. What many Republican strategists have discovered in recent years is that bending the truth often works. It worked against John Kerry when the so-called “Swift Boat Veterans for Truth” were able to smear an exemplary military record in Vietnam. It has worked to convince Americans that global warming is a hoax perpetrated by thousands of deceitful scientists. It has worked to create a perception that Planned Parenthood spends 90 percent of its funding on abortion services. And it nearly worked to convince Americans that Barack Obama was really a Muslim who wasn’t born in the United States.

Wendell Potter, the public relations man for the health insurance industry who turned around and blew the whistle on its deceitful practices, likens the ability to turn lies into perceived truths to the tobacco industry’s successful campaign to convince Americans that smoking was good for them. Just round up a few “experts” to cast doubt on what otherwise is a fact — smoking causes cancer, for example — hammer that doubt home repeatedly, and you’re likely to succeed.

And it isn’t just on the national level that politicians have discovered that when the public doesn’t pay close attention, they can turn lies into truth.

Our own Gov. Scott Walker, for instance, is sticking with his story that he needed to destroy public unions in order to achieve the necessary savings to balance the state budget by forcing public workers to pay more for their health coverage and pensions. He purposely ignores the simple fact that the unions didn’t need to be eviscerated because they had already agreed to make health and pension sacrifices. But it’s amazing how many news stories and radio show hosts treat the governor’s word as gospel.

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Mike Ford of the Wisconsin Policy Research Institute blogged recently that he has a problem with “soak the rich” schemes to help solve the nation’s deficit and income inequality problems. That Obama’s proposal to add a 1 percent surtax on incomes over a million dollars can be characterized as “soak the rich” is in itself ludicrous, but that’s the perception that opponents of any tax hike on the wealthy hope to create.

New York Times’ columnist Paul Krugman calls this all “post-truth” politics.

“So here’s my forecast for the year,” he wrote. “If Romney is in fact the Republican presidential nominee, he will make wildly false claims about Obama and, occasionally, get some flack (sic) for doing so. But news organizations will compensate by treating it as a comparable offense when, say, the president misstates the income share of the top 1 percent by a percentage point or two. The end result will be no real penalty for running an utterly fraudulent campaign.”

Plus, like I said, it often works.

Dave Zweifel is editor emeritus of The Capital Times. dzweifel@madison.com