There is little question that during Wednesday’s debate Romney lied and changed his positions. (See, for example, “At Last Night’s Debate Romney told 27 Myths in 38 minutes.”) But the biggest lie of the debate didn’t occur on Wednesday evening. In an interview with George Stephanopoulos on September 14, 2012, less than three weeks ago, Romney said that he expected the president to lie during the debate:
But I think the challenge that I’ll have in the debate is that the president tends to, how shall I say it, to say things that aren’t true. And in attacking his opponents. I’ve looked at prior debates. And in that kind of case, it’s difficult to say, “Well, am I going to spend my time correcting things that aren’t quite accurate? Or am I going to spend my time talking about the things I want to talk about?”
Psychologists talk about the phenomenon of projection in which a person claims that someone else is doing what he or she is doing. However, Romney wasn’t only projecting his own expectation of lying during the debate onto Obama. Romney and his strategists knew that he would need his Etch-a-Sketch moment, the one in which he portrays himself as a moderate after tacking far right for months. It couldn’t happen at the convention because of how far right the delegates leaned. So they saved it for the first debate. But there was a small problem. If Romney just shifted his positions, he would appear to be flip flop Romney, once again. Solution: devise a narrative in which Obama is made to appear as if he is lying when he challenges Romney.
Romney started setting the stage for this narrative weeks ago and carried it into the debate. From the transcript of the debate:
21:16:44: ROMNEY: So if the tax plan he described were a tax plan I was asked to support, I’d say absolutely not. I’m not looking for a $5 trillion tax cut. What I’ve said is I won’t put in place a tax cut that adds to the deficit. That’s part one. So there’s no economist that can say Mitt Romney’s tax plan adds $5 trillion if I say I will not add to the deficit with my tax plan.
Number two, I will not reduce the share paid by high-income individuals. I know that you and your running mate keep saying that and I know it’s a popular thing to say with a lot of people, but it’s just not the case. Look, I’ve got five boys. I’m used to people saying something that’s not always true, but just keep on repeating it and ultimately hoping I’ll believe it. But that — that is not the case. All right? I will not reduce the taxes paid by high-income Americans. (Emphasis added.)
At the moment when Romney is making extremely misleading statements about his tax plan, a crucial issue for him, he pivots and says, “Look, I’ve got five boys. I’m used to people saying something that’s not always true.” So, Obama, if you challenge me, you are a liar. This wasn’t a spontaneous remark. It was at the heart of Romney’s strategy for the debate. Leaving aside the question of the status of truth in the Romney household, this was certainly a prepared response, perhaps one of the “zingers” that Romney’s team promised.
And let’s not forget another memorable Romney zinger, “Mr. President, you’re entitled to your own airplane and your own house, but not your own facts.”
The bottom line here is that Romney didn’t just lie during the debate; he had a strategy to cover his lies by claiming that his opponent is a liar. An old rhetorical gambit. Well played. But it only makes Romney even more of a liar and less trustworthy. If this man is elected president, we will never know if he is telling us the truth.