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December 12, 2011 1:30 PM Forests vs. trees

By Steve Benen

As a political story, Mitt Romney’s offer of a $10,000 bet on Saturday night has a lot going for it. The story reinforces allegations that Romney is out of touch and unable to relate to middle-class anxieties; it comes at an awful time for Romney as Newt Gingrich surges; and perhaps best of all for the media, “Willard’s Wager” is amusing and easy to understand.

But as Greg Sargent noted this morning, there’s a better story that’s generated far less attention.

[W]hile the $10,000 moment is politically problematic and revealing in some ways, it doesn’t really deserve to rise to the level of national narrative. What’s more deserving of a national storyline about Romney is his serial dishonesty, his willingness to say and do anything to win. […]

More broadly, political reporters and commentators are always tempted to seize on such moments as the $10,000 bet as defining of a candidate’s character. But this moment is ultimately almost as trivial as was John Edwards’ $400 haircut…. This broader pattern [of dishonesty] is what deserves the status of national narrative about Romney’s character, not some throwaway line about a bet.

I don’t think there’s any doubt that Greg’s right about this. Romney and his team have demonstrated a willingness to lie — blatantly and shamelessly — with discomforting ease. We’ve seen this in offensive campaign ads, routine talking points, policy arguments, and even personal anecdotes and characteristics. The former governor seems to have an allergy to the truth.

When pressed, Team Romney has responded, more than once, that niceties such as facts, evidence, and reason just aren’t that important to them. This, in and of itself, seems like a wildly important story, which generally goes overlooked.

So why does “10,000 bucks” get picked up far and wide, while “Romney has a problem telling the truth” doesn’t? If I had to guess, I’d say it probably has to do with the media’s comfort — or in some cases, its lack thereof — with various narratives. Establishment news outlets don’t mind saying Romney is an out-of-touch elitist, but they do mind saying he’s an uncontrollable liar. The former just doesn’t seem especially harsh, so it’s well within the confines of polite discourse. The latter may be demonstrably fair and bolstered by ample evidence, but the media remains reluctant to go there.

But in terms of what deserves to be a major campaign narrative — the wager vs. the dishonesty — it’s not even a close contest.

Steve Benen is a contributing writer to the Washington Monthly, joining the publication in August, 2008 as chief blogger for the Washington Monthly blog, Political Animal.

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  • snowbird42 on December 12, 2011 1:42 PM:

    I have Mormon friends and they may not drink(even coffee) smoke or gamble. Isnt that what a $10000 bet is, gambling?

  • gaardvark on December 12, 2011 1:55 PM:

    If I had to guess, I'd say it probably has to do with the media's comfort, or in some cases, its lack thereof, with various narratives.

    I have two word for you that dispute this argument. Al Gore. The media had no problem characterizing Gore as a serial exaggerator. OK, that wasn't calling him a liar, but it was certainly implied at the time.

    The media likes to adopt narratives and it they think that adopting the narrative will benefit them, they'll do. The question is why don't they think calling Romney a liar, or at least him having problems with the truth, would benefit them. I'm not suggesting a conspiracy or anything. But for some reason reporters won't go there.

  • rea on December 12, 2011 1:56 PM:

    Oddly enough, the media had no trouble painting Al Gore as an uncontrollable liar. Maybe the difference is, with Romney, the portrayal would be true?

  • c u n d gulag on December 12, 2011 1:57 PM:

    Well, like I said earlier, they can't say that Mitt is a lying sack of crap and has taken more positions than Debbie when she "did' Dallas, but they CAN say that he's an out of touch rich guy.

    Ok, I'll still take it!

    They won't cover HIS lying because then they'll have to cover all of the liars on the Republican side.
    And Ben Nelson, Joe Lieberman, among others, on the Democratic and "Independent" side of the aisle.

    And we can't have that, now can we?

    We might wonder why they haven't been doing that for decades, when we had REAL journalists, and not blow-dried Ken and Barbie dolls whose sole talent is to read and make the appropriate facial gesture, and not laugh when they're talking about a child being murdered. Outside of that, I have no idea why any of these assholes are on the news.

  • c u n d gulag on December 12, 2011 1:59 PM:

    rea,
    Thanks - I almost forgot how bad it was with Gore.

    And I wonder why they didn't have a problem saying he was lying, even when he wasn't?
    Could it be that - he's a DEMOCRAT?!?!?!

  • Texas Aggie on December 12, 2011 2:00 PM:

    OK, Romney has shot himself not just in both feet but in various other parts of his body as well. Forget him. The problem is the Grinch who has a much sleazier record than Romney ever thought of and is willing to do a lot more damage to the US than Romney could imagine. And besides the Grinch is way ahead. If he gets chosen as the nominee, there is an excellent chance that he will be our next president. If a witless dingbat like W could win twice, then there is no reason to suspect that the Grinch can't do the same by appealing to the same people.

  • MattF on December 12, 2011 2:01 PM:

    Well, you see, opinions differ about Romney's dishonesty. Some say it's just politics as usual, some say it's not. However, in any case it's not the job of a journalist to decide between differing opinions-- journalists only report, you decide.

  • Grumpy on December 12, 2011 2:01 PM:

    Wait, are you telling me that there's more attention given to the amount of the wager than to the fact that it was an obviously losing bet?

  • Stephen Stralka on December 12, 2011 2:13 PM:

    Well, there's also the corporate media's routine complicity in helping to disseminate the kinds of lies that Mitt Romney and Newt Gingrich both like to tell. For them to call Romney a liar at this point is to raise the question why they didn't notice a long damn time ago.

  • sublime33 on December 12, 2011 2:25 PM:

    A lot of people have an amazing capacity to filter out information so they only hear the good parts and ignore the bad parts whether it is with their kids, sports heroes or politicians. But the $10,000 bet hits another nerve. "How much do you want to bet" is an offshoot of "put your money where your mouth is". If you are really sure of yourself, you might go $100 at the most. But $10,000 basically says "you can't even afford to argue with me, so shut up". That comes off as totally arrogant and it will reasonate.

  • BillFromPA on December 12, 2011 2:27 PM:

    I never did 'get' that the bet thing was damaging at all, but then, nobody's paying me to be a campaign manager either. But I can understand this as a surrogate for all the $hit the Wise Pundits aren't comfortable discussing, you know, like the string of undeniable, blatant lies the Mittster is stuffing into his political ads. There's literally no 'falsehood' a repug can utter that will draw the word 'lie'. I did notice the resemblence between the disgraceful treatment Gore got from the Villagers and that being trained on Mitt of late. There have been numerous stories citing the troubles he's suffering lately and how the primary schedule itself is working against him, but those things are as nothing if the Villagers have settled on a negative narrative for him. If that's the case, he's dead already.

  • SYSPROG on December 12, 2011 2:30 PM:

    I don't take this comment as 'I'm so rich...' I think a NORMAL person would say 'I'll betcha a million bucks that...'. But Romney is known for being notoriously cheap so in HIS bubble $10,000 is an exaggerated amount of money.

  • Matt on December 12, 2011 2:40 PM:

    I like Greg Sargent's work. But it's NOTHING like the proverbial $400 haircut, and it IS relevant and non-trivial.

    $400 is what you'd expect to pay to drag a highly-skilled hairdresser across town on short notice to give a haircut so good you could run for President in it. Sure, it's a crazy amount of money, but the circumstances justify it. It's like the $400 tuxedo you wear at your wedding. If Gingrich's $300,000 Tiffany's credit line were for punch bowls and silver to use at campaign dinners, I'd say there was no story there, either.

    But Mitt Romney's family has a net worth ($202,000,000) that's 2,170 times higher than the median American family's ($93,100). $10K is to him what $4.61 is to the average American. His friendly bet is EXACTLY what you'd expect from someone who saw the world from the perspective of someone with a fifth of a billion dollars.

    Sure, there are empathetic and down-to-earth multimillionaires who "get it." And there are lots more who are at least capable of imagining what it would be like not to have $202,000,000. A guy who does this isn't one of them. And that's relevant!

  • Dan on December 12, 2011 2:46 PM:

    Steve, I wonder when the time will come for the media to start asking *why* Romney is running to begin with. It seems to me that, with his willingness to lie, distort, equivocate, etc., our political media would be curious about his motivation for seeking the office. Could it be that Mitt wants to achieve that which eluded his dad in '68-- and is willing to take whatever steps are necessary to reach his goal?

  • Lance on December 12, 2011 3:01 PM:

    Funny, here I thought the story was that Perry was lying through his teeth, and Romney pointed that out?

    After all, it's pretty easy to show that a book doesn't actually say what Perry claims it says,

    isn't it?

  • Lucia on December 12, 2011 3:05 PM:

    I read somewhere fairly recently a persuasive argument that while the media quite often seem to ignore the substantive in favor of the trivial, "trivial" stories gain traction because they point up something about a candidate/officeholder that already makes voters uneasy. In the case of the $400 haircut, I'd guess it was the perception of Edwards as a pretty face with a lot of money but not much substance behind it. In this case, I think Matt nailed it.

  • Ron Byers on December 12, 2011 3:20 PM:

    Wow $202,000,000 and all I can remember about Mitt is the time he told a bunch of folks that he was unemployed.

  • Holly W on December 12, 2011 3:21 PM:

    Said...
    SYSPROG on December 12, 2011 2:30 PM:
    I don't take this comment as 'I'm so rich...' I think a NORMAL person would say 'I'll betcha a million bucks that...'. But Romney is known for being notoriously cheap so in HIS bubble $10,000 is an exaggerated amount of money.
    -------------
    No, not at all. The idea was to specifically bet not a plausible but painful to lose sum so as to intimidate Rick Perry into chickening out as a way in order to make him look bad (which backfired) and kill the idea that Romney favored the mandate for the country (which breaks down to did he favor a federal mandate or Mass's mandate serving as a good example that he hoped the other states would emulate?) And the best answer for that latter question is: who cares? Because who at this points believes Romney has any sincere philosophical objection to a federal mandate (or anything else) as opposed to thinking he just desperately latched onto the most politically convenient stance to take? Also who honestly believes the Republicans' opposition to Obama's policies have led them to disapprove of him rather than their disapproval of him has led them to oppose his policies?

  • zeitgeist on December 12, 2011 5:20 PM:

    Actually, I think the press is largely reflecting the general public on this one.

    Sure, in the bigger picture lying may be more important.

    But historically, lying hasn't been particularly penalized by voters; they don't trust government or politicians, so lying is dog bites man.

    The quicker way to annoy the voting public is to be out of touch with their reality. Think George H.W. Bush and the supermarket scanner. Kerry with the windsurfing.

    In that light, Romney's casual bet of 1/4th of the average annual household income in Iowa is in fact more likely to be important -- whether it should be or not aside -- than his (or any of the other candidates') serial dishonesty.

  • worcestergirl on December 13, 2011 9:15 AM:

    Actually, I think this is significant. No, not the stupid bet thing, but that the media is targeting a Republican in one of their patented gang-ups (trademark The Village).

    The readily adopt their nasty Homeric epithets for Democrats (Gore the Exagerator, Hillary the Devisive, Kerry the Flip-Flopper, Howard Dean the Far Left Angry Crazy Person) and flattering ones for Republicans (Bush the guy you want to have a beer with, McCain the Maverick. Not a single one of these characterizations is at all fair, but it doesn't matter of they get one they all can agree to.

    So yes, the $10K dumb story is important in that the Village is just not that into Romney, and they are willing to say so.

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