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Liar's Poker

Why McCain just can't tell the truth.

About a week after John McCain's campaign unveiled a vice-presidential nominee who incessantly boasted about her decision to turn down federal funding for a notoriously pointless bridge ("I told Congress 'thanks, but no thanks' on that Bridge to Nowhere"), the press corps began to notice that Sarah Palin had, in fact, vigorously championed the project until it was no longer tenable. Political fibs, even brazen ones such as this, are hardly unprecedented. What happened next, though, was somewhat unusual. Despite having its claim exposed in nearly every media outlet, the McCain campaign continued to assert it anyway, day after day, dozens of times in all. It was as if Bill Clinton had persisted in his claim that he did not have sexual relations with that woman even after the appearance of the semen-stained dress.

But what happened after that was even more unusual, and possibly without precedent: McCain's supporters simply suggested that the truth or falsity of their statements didn't matter. McCain spokesman Brian Rogers said this to Politico about the increased media scrutiny of the campaign's factual claims: "We're running a campaign to win. And we're not too concerned about what the media filter tries to say about it." Republican strategist John Feehery made the point even more bluntly, telling The Washington Post: "The more The New York Times and The Washington Post go after Sarah Palin, the better off she is, because there's a bigger truth out there, and the bigger truths are: She's new, she's popular in Alaska, and she is an insurgent." Then, he added, "As long as those are out there, these little facts don't really matter."

Here we have the distilled essence of the McCain campaign's ethos: Perception is reality. Facts don't matter. McCain has presented himself as the grizzled champion of timeworn values. But the defining trait of his candidacy turns out to be a postmodern disdain for truth. How could McCain--a man widely regarded, not so long ago, as one of the country's most honor-bound politicians, and therefore an unusually honest one--have descended to this ignominious low? Part of the answer is that McCain is simply doing what works--and there is good reason to believe that his campaign's strategy of persistent dishonesty will pay dividends come November 4. But part of the explanation for all this recent dishonesty may lie, oddly enough, in McCain's legendary sense of honor.

No presidential candidate has ever gone through an entire election without stretching the truth. Certainly, Barack Obama is not totally innocent. Last March, Obama said that McCain "wants to continue a war in Iraq perhaps as long as one hundred years," when in fact McCain said that he would favor an indefinite peaceful military presence. (Obama was repeatedly called on this distortion by the press, and subsequently stopped saying it.) He has accused McCain of helping to permit a corporate takeover in Ohio that has led to the threat of layoffs--a literally true claim that inaccurately implies that the takeover caused the problem. He has also accused McCain of favoring nearly $4 billion in new tax breaks for Big Oil--literally true, but misleading, insofar as McCain is offering tax cuts to corporations in general, not Big Oil in particular.

But McCain's untruths, in their frequency and their audacity, defy any modern historical precedent. He has been concocting falsehoods for months on end, all of which serve a clear political purpose. Last summer, Obama--on the heels of a New York Times report that the Bush administration in 2005 had canceled at the last minute a snatch-and-grab operation targeting Osama bin Laden's lieutenants in Pakistan--pledged to follow through on any actionable intelligence against Al Qaeda. After Obama's nomination became likely, McCain--then trying to portray Obama as dangerously naïve and uninformed--accused him of having "once suggested bombing our ally, Pakistan." Obama had not said anything about bombing. His speech merely conveyed his support for small, special operations missions--the types of missions, incidentally, that the Bush administration has since undertaken.

During Obama's overseas trip this summer, he called off a meeting with wounded troops at a military hospital after the Pentagon told him that the trip might run afoul of a policy against visiting soldiers in the course of campaigning. A McCain ad accused him of canceling the meeting because he learned that cameras couldn't accompany him. (In fact, the press had never been scheduled to come along.)

Just last week, McCain attacked Obama for proposing to cut defense spending. "During the primary, he told a liberal advocacy group that he'd cut defense spending by tens of billions of dollars," charged the GOP nominee. "He promised them he would, quote, 'slow our development of future combat systems.'" Actually, Obama had pledged to cut tens of billions of dollars in wasteful military spending (he also favored increasing the size of the military). Worse, almost any listener hearing this claim would come away thinking Obama was proposing to cut funding for weapons systems in development. In reality, Obama had promised to slow the development of a specific project called "Future Combat Systems," a controversial program. Indeed, McCain himself had proposed eliminating this very program in July.

McCain has endlessly accused Obama of favoring tax increases of all kinds--on middle-class families, on low-income workers, on millions of small-business owners, on electricity, on the sale of homes--that he does not favor at all. He's also in the habit of wildly misrepresenting Obama's energy plan. "My opponent doesn't want nuclear power, he doesn't want us to drill offshore, and the other day he mentioned that what we need to do is inflate our tires," he has said, adding, "that's a publicservice announcement, not an energy policy." Over the summer, McCain distributed tire gauges labeled OBAMA'S ENERGY PLAN. Obviously, Obama does have an energy plan, and in fact favors expanding nuclear power. McCain has also preposterously accused Obama of opposing electric cars. A McCain ad described Obama's position as "No to the electric car," simply because Obama had (justifiably) ridiculed McCain's proposal of a $300 million reward for anyone who could create a substantially improved electric car.

Back in May, McCain quoted Obama as having said of Hillary Clinton, "Like she's on the duck blind every Sunday, packin' a six-shooter!" McCain followed that story with an acid quip about how ignorant Obama was for thinking ducks are hunted with six-shooters. This was the kind of devastating detail that had stuck to Democratic nominees before, endlessly circulating on talk radio and cable news, revealing them to be pretentious phonies out of touch with working-class life. But McCain was twisting Obama's line in a crucial way. Obama had actually said: "She's talking like she's Annie Oakley. Hillary Clinton's out there like she's on the duck blind every Sunday. She's packing a six-shooter." Two different things--going on the duck blind, packing a six-shooter. Not only did the press not call McCain on this distortion, but news accounts actually repeated his misquote as fact.

Indeed, McCain's consistent pattern of distortion received little attention until September, when the campaign embarked upon a flurry of prevarications. First, Palin introduced herself to the public as an opponent of the Bridge to Nowhere, even though she had supported the project until it could no longer be sustained (and even then took the federal money but redirected it). McCain actually went on to boast that she had accepted no federal earmarks, when in fact she had requested $453 million.

McCain also ludicrously called Obama's metaphor for McCain's policies ("lipstick on a pig") a personal attack on Palin. And the McCain campaign ran an advertisement falsely accusing Obama of having voted for a bill calling for sex education in kindergarten. (This was an echo of a smear that McCain chief strategist Steve Schmidt had used in a 1996 congressional campaign.) Factcheck. org called the ad "simply false" and explained that the bill required age-appropriate instruction for subjects like teaching younger children about avoiding pedophiles, not, as the ad said, "learning about sex before learning to read." By this point it had become clear even to many of McCain's admirers that there was a pattern at work: He was running a campaign that was unusually, perhaps even uniquely, dishonest.

Considered from a purely amoral point of view, McCain's strategy has much to recommend it. His opponent is a narrow target. Obama has two principal political weaknesses: his race and his lack of experience. McCain, to his credit, has shied away from race-based attacks, and he has de-emphasized experience since selecting Palin. On the policy front, McCain faces even more of a disadvantage. He's defending a set of proposals nearly indistinguishable from those of an incumbent with the highest disapproval ratings in the history of polling. McCain got some traction attacking Obama for supporting a timetable for withdrawal, until the Iraqi prime minister endorsed essentially the same idea. Obama, like Bill Clinton, has taken few positions that might hurt him in the election. On taxes, for instance, Obama favors larger rate cuts for the vast majority of Americans, leaving McCain in the unenviable position of defending (vis-à-vis his opponent) higher taxes for the middle class and vastly lower taxes for the very rich. McCain, in short, stands little chance running against Obama. Running against a pretend Obama who favors broad tax hikes and opposes any new energy sources naturally seems more promising.

McCain does run some risk of a backlash. After years of portraying him as a uniquely honorable figure in American politics, the national press corps has started to take note of his brazen distortions, a development that may threaten his most precious asset. But we should consider an alternate possibility. Suppose that McCain has committed himself, with the Palin pick, to running a campaign centered around mobilizing the Republican base. He has enjoyed clear success with this since the Palin pick, attracting larger crowds, drawing higher fund-raising totals, and even seeing dramatically higher numbers of voters identifying themselves as Republicans in polls.

If this is McCain's strategy, then a bunch of news reports debunking his claims isn't going to hurt. Indeed it may even help. Last February, political scientists Brendan Nyhan of Duke and Jason Reifler of Georgia State published the results of an experiment designed to test the effects of political untruths. The results would unsettle any idealist. The first conclusion they found was that lies work. When subjects were confronted with an untrue political claim (President Bush banned stem-cell research; weapons of mass destruction were found in Iraq) respondents naturally moved toward those positions. When the lie was corrected, however, the effect of the untruth in moving opinions largely remained. The truth, in other words, is no antidote for a lie.

Their second conclusion was even more disturbing. Subjects who identified as politically conservative were not only immune to the effects of having a lie corrected, the correction made them even more likely to believe a lie. So, for instance, one group of conservative subjects was presented with a news story that depicted President Bush claiming weapons of mass destruction had been found in Iraq. A second group of conservatives was presented with the same thing, along with a paragraph noting that Bush's statement was untrue. The second group was more likely than the first to believe that Iraq possessed WMDs. The very fact of the press challenging their beliefs seems to have made conservatives more likely to embrace them. If this finding is broadly correct, then the media's newfound willingness to fact-check McCain will only succeed in rallying the GOP base to his side.

But wait. Those of us who have admired McCain are not used to analyzing his actions in purely amoral terms. This is a man with a history of true heroism who takes honor seriously. What happened to him?

The McCain campaign and its sympathizers have offered one semi-acknowledgment in public. According to their theory, McCain tried to run a high-road campaign, but was ignored by the press and rebuffed by Obama. McCain, complained his former aide, Dan Schnur, "had a poverty tour and nobody covered it." (McCain's tour did get some coverage, but not the commanding attention McCain hoped for, possibly because he had no actual poverty proposals to accompany it.) Likewise, McCain cites his unrequited offer to hold joint town halls as evidence of his good faith. "I think the tone of this whole campaign would've been very different," he said recently, "if Senator Obama had accepted my request for us to appear at town hall meetings all over America." McCain's proposal of joint town halls was salutary, but it wasn't an act of charity--the obvious purpose was to draw Obama into a forum where McCain excels. Even if McCain did make the offer out of a pure-hearted desire to lift the public discourse, Obama's refusal hardly justifies embarking upon a sustained campaign of slander. McCain's rationale is a bit like saying your rejection from law school forced you to turn to a life of crime.

Any attempt to determine McCain's true motives is necessarily pure speculation. It's possible that McCain has convinced himself to actually believe the lies he has been telling. But here's a more likely explanation: All this dishonesty can be understood not as a betrayal of McCain's sense of honor but, in an odd way, as a fulfillment of it.

McCain's deep investment in his own honor can drive him to do honorable things, but it can also allow him to believe that anything he does must be honorable. Thus the moralistic, crusading tone McCain brings to almost every cause he joins. In 2000 and afterward, McCain came to despise George W. Bush and Karl Rove. During his more recent primary campaign, McCain thought the same of front-runner Mitt Romney. Not surprisingly, Romney was the target of McCain's most unfair primary attack--an inaccurate claim that he favored a withdrawal timetable in Iraq.

In time, when Bush's support became necessary for his second presidential campaign, McCain reconciled himself to his former rival--and even to Rove, whom he has reportedly taken on as an outside adviser. More recently, he apparently changed his view of Romney. Now, Obama is the villain. "The contempt that many McCain aides hold for Barack Obama," The Atlantic's Marc Ambinder wrote this summer, "rivals the contempt that McCain held for Mitt Romney a year ago." As Time reported, "McCain and his aides now view Obama with the same level of contempt they once reserved for tobacco-company executives, corrupt lawmakers and George W. Bush. They have convinced themselves that Obama is not honorable, that he does not love his country as much as himself."

The pattern here is perfectly clear. McCain has contempt for anybody who stands between him and the presidency. McCain views himself as the ultimate patriot. He loves his country so much that he cannot let it fall into the hands of an unworthy rival. (They all turn out to be unworthy.) Viewed in this way, doing whatever it takes to win is not an act of selfishness but an act of patriotism. McCain tells lies every day and authorizes lying on his behalf, and he probably knows it. But I would guess--and, again, guessing is all we can do--that in his mind he is acting honorably. As he might put it, there is a bigger truth out there.

Jonathan Chait is a senior editor at The New Republic.

This article originally ran in the October 8, 2008, issue of the magazine.