Politicians Lie? Not Shocking. But Why Don’t We Care More?

Lies. Falsehoods. Misleading statements. Whatever you call them, they’re part of the political process. Reuters’ blog has a worthy piece making the case that lying is part of election season. No matter how devoted we are to our favorite candidates, we’re probably lying to ourselves if we think they’d rate a perfect score on the truth meter.

This is the kind of info I’m keeping in my hip pocket for when I run for president of Newt Gingrich’s moon colony. "Today I promise you, if I’m elected, every city block will have an oxygen bar — and each citizen will have an American flag-themed moon suit featuring an image of ‘Hacksaw’ Jim Duggan. Malektor! (That means ‘God Bless’ in Moon Talk — a fake language I’ll create to help sell more tchotchkes to tourists.)"

The candidates lie about each other, they lie about themselves, they lie about issues they know intimately, and they lie about issues they barely understand. Of Romney, the Washington Post‘s Dana Milbank writes today that the candidate has changed, reversed and obliterated his views so many times that “Whatever Romney’s positions were, they are no longer.”

If either presidential candidate met you, he’d tell you a lie within 15 seconds of shaking your hand, and if he knew he were going to meet your mother, he’d invent a special set of lies for her. Politicians lie not because they’re wicked – though some are – but because they’ve learned that political markets rarely reward honest campaigners. Say what you will about Ralph Nader and H. Ross Perot, but they ran relatively honest campaigns on the issues, and the voters rejected them. The political market spoke many years ago and continues to speak: Telling the truth is not great for campaigns – and if it were, more people would be doing it…

Some of the lies the candidates tell are innocuous and are not held against them, as Kathleen Hall Jamieson and Paul Waldman write in their 2003 book, The Press Effect: Politicians, Journalists, and the Stories that Shape the Political World. For example, “It’s great to be in Kansas City” is a completely acceptable lie, as is the platitude, “Nothing is more important to me than the future of our children,” Jamieson and Waldman write. Nor do voters care much if candidates claim to have “led the fight” for a piece of legislation if all they did was vote for it or sign it. Moving up the ladder of lying, candidates rarely are forced to pay a political price when they butcher the truth, even in presidential debates. ”You can say anything you want during a debate and 80 million people hear it,” said Vice President George H.W. Bush’s press secretary Peter Teeley in 1984, adding a “so what?” to the fact that reporters might document a candidate’s debate lies. ”Maybe 200 people read it or 2,000 or 20,000.”…

Campaigns can survive the most blatant political lies, but candidates must be careful not to lie about themselves – or even appear to lie about themselves, as Jamieson and Waldman demonstrate in a long chapter about Al Gore’s image problems. Gore never claimed to have invented the Internet or to have discovered Love Canal. He did, however, falsely claim during the 1988 presidential contest to have gotten “a bunch of people indicted and sent to jail” while working as a reporter. Voters demand authenticity in their presidential candidates, even if the authenticity is fake, as was George W. Bush’s just-folks manner. To lie about an issue is to be a politician. To lie about a corporation is to be a public relation executive. To lie about a legal matter is to be a lawyer. To lie about international power relations is to be a diplomat. But to lie about who you are is to be a hypocrite, and voters despise hypocrites.

The pervasiveness of campaign lies tells us something we’d rather not acknowledge, at least not publicly: On many issues, voters prefer lies to the truth. That’s because the truth about the economy, the future of Social Security and Medicare, immigration, the war in Afghanistan, taxes, the budget, the deficit and the national debt is too dismal to contemplate. As long as voters cast their votes for candidates who make them feel better, candidates will continue to lie. And to win.

Candidates, Tell Us How You Lead

What’s missing in political debates? OK, that might be a dangerous way to phrase it. But a Governing magazine columnist offers one strong suggestion – that questions about executive leadership and decision-making style would be helpful additions for learning more about the candidates.

If I had my way, every presidential or gubernatorial or mayoral debate would include a required question designed to illuminate the candidates’ executive leadership and decision-making style. Of course, there still could be the usual questions concerning the tax returns of the candidates, or their stand on marriage, or whether they think that food stamps make people overly dependent on government. Above and beyond those questions, however, here are some (by no means an exhaustive list) that I would argue are more important. These suggestions focus on skills and behaviors relevant to governing (as opposed to politicking):

  • What qualities do you look for in members of your executive team? Are there particular qualities that you are seeking for all positions? How important is it that those selected for positions have deep knowledge or expertise in the relevant area? (Does the secretary of the Treasury, for example, have to have Wall Street experience—or would a track record of sound economic judgment, compliance with tax laws and demonstrated management skills be sufficient?)
  • Are you tolerant, even encouraging, of dissenting views? Or are you unable to manage yourself in the face of pushback, and therefore discourage it in those who serve you?
  • More generally, how do you use evidence when you make decisions? When pursuing a particular policy course, will you consult with stakeholders and available data and analysis, both inside and outside of government, prior to making a decision? Which factor matters more: whether an approach has proven effective or whether it keeps a political constituency happy?

There is frequently a tremendous disconnect between what it takes to be elected and what it takes to govern. Sometimes candidates’ campaigns do provide glimpses of executive style, but usually unwittingly. When Newt Gingrich’s entire campaign staff quit in June of 2011, they cited his lack of discipline as a reason for their mass resignation. But we need more than these rare, chance indicators to go on when we are choosing the people who will run our governments.

The fact that leadership, and executive style, are not discussed in political campaigns is just further evidence of the inadequacy of our prevailing political discourse. As a constituency, we fail to take responsibility for the reality that when we elect a president, a governor, a mayor or a county executive we are electing a leader-in-chief and a decision maker-in-chief. Trying to gain insight into how that leadership would be exercised—and the extent to which data, analysis, and reasoned debate would influence decision-making—seems a topic worthy of at least one question in a campaign debate.

Politicians and Image Problems? Well, I Never…

Here’s a topic that seems to transcend party lines: Politicans getting into trouble for lewd, immoral behavior. Personally, I try not to judge, and I figure mostly it’s between the offender and his family to deal with. Although, I do get irked by the lying that immediately follows discovery — especially when it’s rather apparent, as was the latest case involving Rep. Anthony Weiner.

Ball State sent out a press release on this general topic today, so I thought we’d share it here:

As a former journalist, Ball State telecommunications professor Phil Bremen is still amazed that politicians are making the same mistakes time after time when it comes to integrity.

The latest politician to get into hot water is U.S. Rep. Anthony Weiner of New York, who spent the last week dodging questions over whether he had sent a lewd photo of himself to a female college student in Seattle. During a press conference Monday in New York City, the congressman admitted to that as well as sending photos and having online chats – even intimate phone calls – with at least six women over the last three years.

"A politician governs in complexities but campaigns in simple slogans," says Bremen, who was an NBC News foreign correspondent and local television news anchor before joining Ball State. "A politician knows that Joe Sixpack and Sarah Soccermom don’t bother with complexities and nuances but they do know whether or not they have been photographed in their undershorts.

"It was just a few months ago that another married congressman from New York was revealed to have sent a shirtless photo of himself to a woman other than his wife. How can so many accomplished, presumably intelligent men keep missing the lesson? My guess is that they just shrug it off as not applying to them. You don’t have to look very hard at legislatures, for instance, to notice that the folks who write the laws make a habit of exempting themselves. When power corrupts, why would we expect the corruption to be limited to one’s official dealings? And as for the sense of entitlement that so many politicians deride in other people, it appears to be alive and well in themselves."

Besides, busy public officials can get just as distracted as anyone else. Weiner is only the most recent example, Bremen says, of someone prominent who forgot which social-media account he was using when he pushed the button, thus sharing with a universe of people instead of the intended recipient.

Bremen has watched as news that used to be relegated to gossip columns in the tabloids now makes the front page of respectable newspapers and the top of the evening news.

"Privacy – and the expectation of privacy – is eroding all around us. At the same time, people are willingly disclosing much about themselves that previous generations were ashamed to mention. Also, unlike big public-policy issues like what do to about Pakistan or how to fix the economy, stories about sex are not only titillating; they’re also very easy to understand."

Bremen also spent four years as press secretary to Indiana Gov. Frank O’Bannon. He emphasizes that his boss was as every bit as squeaky clean as his image.