Friday, January 25, 2008

The Clintons' Lies

Hilzoy describes how "Hillary Clinton, and her husband, have told a series of lies about Barack Obama", and why this matters:*
The Clinton campaign apparently thought that presenting Hillary Clinton herself, and saying true things about Obama, might not be enough to convince people to vote for her. There are ways of responding to this thought that demonstrate respect for people's right to make up their own mind whom to vote for: trying to become a more compelling candidate, for instance, or accepting the possibility of defeat. But lying is not one of them.

Lying in an election is basically a way of saying: we know how you ought to vote, and if we can't get you to vote that way by presenting you with facts and arguments, or even with truthful but emotionally shaded appeals, then we will get you to vote our way by telling you things that are not true. It's hard to see what could be more profoundly disrespectful of people's right to decide for themselves whom to vote for.

This is simply intolerable, and I'm increasingly hopeful that informed and responsible citizens will not, in fact, tolerate it any longer. Here, for example, is the former president of Chicago NOW, explaining how Clinton's blatant lies drove her to become an Obama supporter:

I don't think it's sufficiently widely appreciated just how important this issue is. I mean, we're constantly complaining about the wretched state of public discourse and the dishonesty of politicians, and yet it is accepted as necessary and inevitable. (Some cynics even consider sleazy viciousness a virtue in politicians. Again, all I have to say to such people is: read Hilzoy.)

But it is not inevitable. In Obama, we finally have a candidate who promises to turn things around, to change the way that politics is done. He offers a clear alternative: we need not join the race to the slimy bottom. And if we embrace this alternative, and state clearly and publicly that our reason for doing so is that we will not tolerate dishonesty in our representatives, then maybe - just maybe - things will begin to change. If we can ensure that dishonesty is a losing strategy, an instant disqualifier the same way that racism is, even the most unprincipled politicians will begin to respond to these incentives. But it's up to us:
It's not the lies; it's people in the Democratic party who realize they're lies being indifferent to them, and Democratic voters rewarding them. Of all the major groups in politics--the press, GOP politicians, Democratic politicians, Democratic voters, GOP voters--the only ones I trust at all are Democratic voters. And the presidential primary is our best shot to try to change things for the better. And we always blow it.

It's not too late. Every voice helps: please do your bit.

* See also Bruce Baugh's comment:
I'm certainly not the first to point this out, but it really reflects badly on her qualifications for office at this particular time. We've got a president who takes all disagreement as attacks to be crushed by any means possible, who rejects diplomacy as a thing losers do, and so on. A big part of the new president's job will be repairing the damage from all that - giving potential allies and partners reasons to think we're trustworthy again. It seems really unlikely to me that someone who campaigns this way can go on to govern effectively in the diametrically opposite style, and I don't want to gamble on it.

Update: Obama's hard-hitting response to the smears is spot-on: "Hillary Clinton. She'll say anything, and change nothing."


  1. It seems odd on one hand to put such faith in voters' ability to democratically produce good results (rational behavior) but to worry excessively about something that a rational voter ought to be able to discount. What am I missing?

  2. I'm not sure I follow the question. The last eight years show that voters can easily be duped (since most are not as well-informed as the political junkies who read and write blogs). I oppose dishonesty in politics precisely because I want to make it more likely that our democracy yields good results.

  3. Or, as Hilzoy put it:

    "When politicians lie, however, they raise the amount of time it takes to do one's job as a citizen adequately, and they raise it dramatically. It's as though they walked up to people and said: if I weren't around, you might be able to fulfill your civic obligations by reading the papers, but thanks to my lies, in order to exercise your right to vote responsibly, you will have to spend hours Googling and going over long-forgotten articles in order to find out the most basic facts. If you don't, I'll be able to deceive you. Ha ha ha!"

    (Though one might also blame the papers for failing to call the politicians on their lies.)

  4. The average voter is probably cynical enough to think that Obama is not actually more honest - just that he is better at hiding it.

    I suppose there is also a question regarding if your objective is "socialism" for example then you might elect a lier over an honest person with the idea that the lier will be able to get stuff done in politics.

    you and I are probably more interested in he meta politics - but I expect few others are - most probably don't look far ahead so in that sort of time frame it might not matter.


    I guess its the old quote - "Democracy is the worst form of government, except for all those other forms that have been tried". Democracy is pretty bad at making decision it is just that it could be moved from pretty bad to marginally bad with a lot of effort.

  5. "Obama is not actually more honest - just that he is better at hiding it"

    What does that even mean? So long as he refrains from acting dishonestly, e.g. actually lying about his opponent's positions, then it doesn't matter whether deep down he's pure of heart.

    "the liar will be able to get stuff done in politics."

    Yeah, it's a common piece of foolishness to think that it's "pragmatic" to pursue your ends without any principled constraints -- whether lies, torture, or whatever. Cf. Bad Means Have Consequences.

    See also Katherine's comment: "If you support policies that are bad for the majority of the U.S. electorate, it's in your interest for the electorate to believe false things and assume that they can't trust any politician. But if you don't? It's NOT."

  6. I find it interesting that not one of hilzoy's list of lies is a case of Hillary lying. With all due respect to hilzoy, 'the Clintons' aren't a Presidential candidate. Bill Clinton is not a candidate; he's just a husband, and everyone knows already that he lies. If people don't want to vote for Hillary because she's married to Bill, they should just come out and say so. An email with false claims about Obama was put out by some of Clinton's supporters, and distributed by staffers in her campaign. If we were to engage in parity of reasoning, we would have to say that Obama has lied about Hillary because he has attributed directly to her false claims made by other people entirely, who are only associated with her campaign. Or, to take another example, in Obama's 2004 Senate campaign some campaign literature made false claims about his law background. Was that a lie by Obama? There is no proof it was; candidates don't and can't write or even review all their campaign literature themselves, some staffers might have misunderstood or exaggerated something, etc. The closest hilzoy comes is with Hillary alluding to something Obama actually said (hilzoy's #1) without regard for the actual context in which it was said -- which could just as easily be a trick of memory, for all anyone knows.

    So I think there's still a dearth of proof on this charge; at present it looks like very little more than a standard sort of partisan accusation.

  7. Brandon, example #1 is indeed a straight falsehood: Obama never said he "really liked" the Republican's ideas. What Hillary said simply isn't true, and while it's possible she made an honest mistake, she doesn't strike me as that incompetent or unprepared.

    The other examples demonstrate that her campaign is engaging in a systematic pattern of lies and distortion. And it is entirely reasonable to hold a candidate responsible for how their campaign is run. (It's not like we're just talking about one little slip-up here!) The contrast between the Hillary and Obama campaigns here is significant, and provides us with ample reason to support the latter.

  8. > What does that even mean? So long as he refrains from acting dishonestly

    Remember I am not talking about an ideal scenario here.

    the average citizen doesn't have anywhere near the full list of all the statements - in fact they probably have none of them.

    So they have no idea if he (or she) has acted dishonestly (lied) - and if he did are unclear regarding whether they were accidental lies (e.g. maybe Clinton really thought Obama meant something different), intentional deceptions (e.g they knew what he meant) or just 'technical' lies (e.g. they are right about what he meant but not what he said).

    > then it doesn't matter whether deep down he's pure of heart.


    > Katherine's comment

    Meh... that is based on the erronious assumption that the public will vote for what is good for them or punish those that deceive them - obviously that isn't the case if it was the system would fix itself which I guess relates to randall's point.

    > example #1 is indeed a straight falsehood:

    here is the other part of the quote

    "He put us on a fundamentally different path because the country was ready for it. They felt like, you know, with all the excesses of the 60's and the 70's and government had grown and grown but there wasn't much sense of accountability in terms of how it was operating and he tapped into what people were already feeling. Which is, people wanted clarity, we want optimism, we want a return to that sense of dynamic and entrepreneurship that had been missing, alright?"

    take this in the context of the fact that no sensible polititian today entirely rejects the ideas of that era of politics, or denies that they were the party of ideas, and they almost certainly incorporate some of it into their own policy.

    >The contrast between the Hillary and Obama campaigns here is significant.

    It was easy to predict even before the election that the establishment candidates (here Romney and Hillary) would have aggressive campaigns like Bush did before that. their support is stacked with partisans who react badly to any serious threat. Meanwhile those with organizations stacked with independants (Obama and Mccain) would be on the defensive. Not sure if it is morally a defense but it is a reason to believe that their behaviour outside of office might not directly equate to their behaviour inside office and thus undermine the concequentialist reason for voting against it.

  9. Richard,

    One way of taking Genius's point is that voters may think that Obama does dishonest things, but he gets away with them. If voters think this, btw, they're right.

    For instance, several months back Obama criticized the Democrats for not doing anything to fix Social Security. This isn't technically a lie, the Democrats haven't tried to fix Social Security. But given that it's questionable whether SS is broken, the attack does seem pretty deceptive. It looks even worse if you consider that it's tapping into, and tacitly endorsing, a lot of genuine lying that went on about SS.

    There are a few more cases like this. Obama is a very skilled politician, and a lot slipperier than most people seem to realize. No, he rarely lies, but he's certainly good at deceptive implications and innuendo.

    I say this as someone who may vote for Obama here, mainly because of the Iraq war. But this idea that he's all purity and light compared to the muck of the Clinton machine isn't true.

  10. Derek,
    yes I agree, and I also would probably vote Obama (except I can't because I am not an American). As per the policy analysis I did on my blog I think I prefer Obama's policy set.

  11. In Obama, we finally have a candidate who promises to turn things around, to change the way that politics is done.

    This line is pretty amusing.

    That "finally" may be the most important word in this whole post. I think you're showing your age (not that my age is much different, but I've at least had my years in the U.S.). There have been plenty of reform candidates who have tried to change the way politics is done. Howard Dean in 2004, Bill Bradley in 2000, Paul Tsongas in 1992, ... . McCain 2000 may belong in there as well. Yet here we are, with President Bush.

    The reform message tends to catch on among more politically informed, more educated voters (like you, and much of the liberal blogosphere), but not so much among the working class voters who don't follow politics as closely (who tend to focus more on concrete issues rather than meta-politics). That, at least, is the gist of the discussion that has been ongoing on this topic, under the heading of "wine track" candidates vs. "beer track" candidates.

    I am supporting Obama, in part because of these types of issues (although more for foreign policy reasons, and I'm not sure who I'd be supporting if Edwards was competitive), but I think you may be going a bit overboard here. For one thing, even if Obama gets elected and acts with honesty and integrity, that won't come close to bringing about a radical transformation in the way that politics is done. Smears, spin, and other sorts of dishonesty have been effective political tools for generations, and it seems unlikely that Obama would be able to make it so that was no longer the case four years after he had left office.

    Saying it's "up to us" may not provide much guidance, when you are one person, and "us" contains many, most of whom are not paying attention to you and have some pretty significant differences from you. Do what you can to fight back against dishonesty, but keep some perspective.

  12. Yeah, fair enough, but I do find it very encouraging just how well Obama's doing (thanks in large part to non-rational reasons, of course, e.g. his charisma and rhetorical skills). So it seems to me that his candidacy is a remarkable opportunity to really improve things here.

  13. Richard,

    I mean that rational voters ought to be able to take things with a grain of salt, especially after someone's lies are exposed, and ought to at least have an ear out for the corrections that follow the lies.

    Further, they could take their patronage to media sources that do call politicians on their lies.

    There might be lots of reasons, but why do you think they don't?

    (Sorry if this is the second time my comment is published; it doesn't appear yet.)

  14. Most people do, I guess, distrust politicians and so take what they say "with a grain of salt". But that of course dilutes the information signals we need to make informed decisions, and raises the cost and effort of good citizenship to a point above what most people are willing to pay. That's the real problem here: no mere moralistic complaint that politicians are wickedly betraying the public trust (there may be no such trust in the first place), but the practical concern that they are making it less likely that the electorate will decide well (because of the raised costs of becoming informed).

    "they could take their patronage to media sources that do call politicians on their lies."

    Interesting. I'm not sure why they don't, but I'd guess a mix of (i) lack of supply -- where are these critical but trustworthy media sources? and (ii) lack of demand: most people probably just don't care enough.


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