When political discourse becomes propaganda
Posted: Friday, October 19, 2012 7:02 pm
By DOUGLAS COHN
and ELEANOR CLIFT
WASHINGTON — Propaganda is a loaded word and used sparingly in a democratic society. It relies on repetition of the big lie, or on lots of little lies. Playing loose with the truth is not new in the realm of political discourse, but when exaggeration, embellishment and distortion are supplanted with outright falsehoods boldly pronounced, discourse becomes propaganda.
In their first debate, President Obama was stunned when Gov. Mitt Romney, in an attempt to move to the center, denied having made various statements even though they were recorded or in writing. Obama wanted to remain presidential and in the process came off looking weak and bewildered. That was not the case in their next debate on Tuesday evening at Hofstra University. The president appeared somewhat unpresidential, but this time he let nothing pass.
When a questioner asked about the attack in Benghazi that had taken the lives of a U.S. ambassador and three other Americans, Romney was ready with his attack, faulting the administration for downplaying the assault on the Benghazi diplomatic compound as a protest against an anti-Islam video. Obama countered that he had characterized it as an act of terror in his initial statement in the Rose Garden, telling Romney to check the transcript.
A disbelieving Romney continued until moderator Candy Crowley interjected, “He did say that,” in effect cutting Romney off at the pass as he attempted to launch what his campaign believes is an effective argument that the Obama administration bungled the intelligence coming out of Benghazi. Crowley’s clarification damaged Romney even as Obama unpresidentially egged her on: “Can you say that a little louder, Candy?”
Romney appeared rattled but pressed on, accusingly saying that Obama had flown to Las Vegas for a fundraiser the afternoon after Ambassador Stevens and his three compatriots had been slain. The next morning a fact checker noted that Obama had indeed flown to Las Vegas but it was for a campaign event, not a fundraiser. Romney too was attending political events in the wake of the Benghazi attack.
The ongoing investigation into what happened in Benghazi and who knew what when is an open wound for the administration, but Romney’s fumbling of the facts undermined his credibility and turned the exchange to the president’s advantage.
Whether it was a miscue by Romney or part of the larger GOP narrative to assail the administration regardless of where the facts may lead is where political discourse crossed the line and became propaganda. Voters could see in real time a falsehood exposed, granted a small one, but revealing nonetheless.
And on it went with Romney repeating false accusations that Obama had doubled the deficit and raised taxes on middle income taxpayers, statements he had gotten away with in the first debate, but not at Hofstra.
The latitude for stretching the truth has expanded exponentially in this campaign season. In past elections, it’s hard to imagine a candidate proposing to pay for a tax cut by closing loopholes that he then refuses to identify. Obama called it a “sketchy deal,” lampooning Romney for only citing the elimination of funding for Big Bird and Planned Parenthood. However, this falls more in the realm of the disingenuous discourse typical of most campaigns, something akin to Richard Nixon’s secret plan to end the war in Vietnam.
But the listening public may not have noticed the distinction once Obama, with Crowley’s help, had exposed the Republican candidate’s descent into propaganda. Once the web of deceit was exposed, little else mattered.
Published in The Messenger 10.19.12
DOUGLAS COHN, ELEANOR CLIFT