“Senator McCain's campaign actually said, and I quote, ‘if we keep talking about the economy, we're going to lose.’”
— Then-Sen. Barack Obama, Oct. 16, 2008
We resisted writing about Mitt Romney’s first television ad when it was released just before Thanksgiving, on the grounds that the issue — whether the ad misquoted President Obama — had been thoroughly and quickly discussed. We sometimes also see little need to fact check items that have been already debunked by one political faction or the other.
But readers have repeatedly asked us to weigh in, and the ad was once again in the news this week after a report in The New York Times by our former colleague Thomas Edsall quoted an anonymous “top operative” in the Romney campaign as defending the ad because “ads are propaganda by definition…. Ads are about hyperbole, they are about editing…. They are manipulative pieces of persuasive art.”
Excuse us for appearing cynical, but Romney’s supposed adviser is simply stating a truth practiced by both political parties. We’ve seen plenty of Four-Pinocchio ads in our time, and this Romney ad does not make the cut.
The ad opens with a headline: “On October 16, 2008, Barack Obama Visited New Hampshire.” Then grainy scenes flash by of Obama speaking as more headlines flash by, such as: “He Promised He Would Fix the Economy…. He Failed”
Finally there’s Obama’s voice: “If we keep talking about the economy, we’re going to lose.”
The ad then shifts tone and switches to positive images of Romney speaking to voters. Romney offers mostly platitudes, though he makes at least one factually dubious assertion: “I am going to get rid of Obamacare. It’s killing jobs and keeping our kids from having the bright prospects they deserve.”
The Obama campaign seized on the fact the Obama quote about “going to lose” sliced off the beginning of his sentence — that Obama was actually quoting an aide to his then-rival, Sen. John McCain. Obama campaign spokesman Ben LaBolt called Romney’s ad “a deceitful and dishonest attack.”
But there are three reasons why we have trouble being outraged.
First, the ad makes clear that Obama is speaking in 2008. The opening headline cues that to viewers. Then, after Obama utters the quote, the tone of the ad clearly shifts to the present. (The grainy images of the past become clear images of today.) We are not sure how people could be fooled into thinking this is a present-day Obama statement, though some might argue the timeline is confused by the headlines highlighting today’s economic woes.
Second, Obama’s statement was actually a misleading quote itself. Reading the full text of his speech today, we see a number of Pinocchio-worthy statements, including the latter part of this quote:
Even as we face the most serious economic crisis of our time; even as you are worried about keeping your jobs or paying your bills or staying in your homes, my opponent's campaign announced earlier this month that they want to "turn the page" on the discussion about our economy so they can spend the final weeks of this election attacking me instead. Senator McCain's campaign actually said, and I quote, "if we keep talking about the economy, we're going to lose."
The first part of this statement stems from a Washington Post article, which quoted a campaign official, on the record, as saying McCain wanted to “turn the page on this financial crisis” and focus on Obama’s “aggressive liberal record.” But the second part of that statement comes from a quote by an unnamed “top McCain strategist” to the New York Daily News. It was never an official statement from the campaign, as Obama implied.
Finally, the Romney campaign made it very clear that it had truncated the quote. In briefing materials for reporters, the campaign highlighted the fact that it snipped the first part of the quote. And campaign communications director Gail Gitcho actually blogged about what the campaign did. Under the headline, “Tables Turned,” she wrote:
Three years ago, candidate Barack Obama mocked his opponent’s campaign for saying “if we keep talking about the economy, we're going to lose.” Now, President Obama’s campaign is desperate not to talk about the economy. Their strategy is to wage a personal campaign — or “kill Romney.” It is a campaign of distraction.
Our experience is that campaigns often try to hide deception, rather than brag about it. It’s true that viewers of the ad may not necessarily read the blog post, but as we said, the ad specifically states that Obama made these remarks in 2008. (Moreover, the Romney folks are trying to say that the Obama campaign, by attacking Romney so often even before he gets the nomination, is now practicing the very campaign technique Obama decried before.)
The Romney people went so far out of their way to highlight what they did that we suspect this was designed to be a trap for the Obama campaign. The Romney campaign appears to have wanted to spark a negative reaction from the Obama camp, thereby setting up a clash focused on the economy. If that was their goal, they certainly succeeded.
In fact, we were reminded of a conversation we once had with the late Tony Schwartz, creator of the most controversial campaign ad ever made — the “Daisy”commercial aired by the Lyndon B. Johnson campaign during the 1964 race against Barry Goldwater.
LBJ’s ‘Daisy’ Commercial
Schwartz said the ad was designed to be a trap, because it never mentioned Goldwater as it projected images of nuclear explosions. Schwartz fully expected Goldwater would complain — which he did — and thereby reinforce the image that he could be a dangerous president. Schwartz said his biggest fear before the ad aired was that Goldwater would realize it was a trap and instead issue a statement saying he agreed with the sentiments expressed by Johnson.
If he had done that, Schwartz said, Goldwater would have made the ad a non-story. Instead, Goldwater’s outraged reaction elevated the ad into one of the most famous political commercials in U.S. history — even though it only aired once.
The Pinocchio Test
We are not defending what the Romney campaign did, but we have seen political ads that are worse. This particular ad clearly has misleading elements-- “significant omissions and/or exaggerrations”--but it does not cross some new and dangerous line in political image-making. The Romney campaign, both in the ad and its communications to reporters, clearly highlighted this was a truncated Obama quote from the past, not the present. So they were not trying to hide anything, as is typical of such ads.
Check out our candidate Pinocchio Tracker
A Look at Deceptive Ads from Flackcheck.org
Our friends at the Annenberg Public Policy Center, home of Factcheck.org, examine this Romney ad and a recent DNC ad on Romney to show how both sides take quotes out of context. Watch it--it’s very clever.