One of the more outlandish moments of the 2012 campaign came when Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid went to the floor of the world's greatest deliberative body and accused GOP nominee Mitt Romney of not paying any taxes at all for the past 10 years. Reid's evidence? Someone had told him. (That "someone" is alleged to be Jon Huntsman, father of the former Utah governor. Huntsman denies involvement.)
Reid's claim, which seemed outrageous on its face, was widely dismissed by fact-checkers. Wrote WaPo's Fact Checker Glenn Kessler in a piece giving Reid four Pinocchios for the claim:
Without seeing Romney’s taxes, we cannot definitively prove Reid incorrect. But tax experts say his claim is highly improbable. Reid also has made no effort to explain why his unnamed source would be credible. So, in the absence of more information, it appears he has no basis to make his incendiary claim.
Moreover, Reid holds a position of great authority in the U.S. Congress. He should hold himself to a high standard of accuracy when making claims about political opponents.
And yet, the clip above shows Reid, in an interview with CNN's Dana Bash, not only refusing to apologize for the claim but defending it — in a very weird way.
"Romney didn't win, did he?" Reid said in response to Bash's question of whether he regretted what he had said about Romney.
Think about that logic for a minute. What Reid is saying is that it's entirely immaterial whether what he said about Romney and his taxes was true. All that mattered was that Romney didn't win.
Where to begin?
How about with the fact that this all-means-justify-the-ends logic — assuming the end is your desired one — is absolutely toxic for politics and, more importantly, democracy. (Worth noting: Reid is far from the only one who practices this sort of thinking; it's the rule rather than the exception in political Washington, where winning — no matter the cost — is the only goal that matters.) If you can lie — or, at a minimum, mislead based on scant information or rumor — then anything is justified in pursuit of winning. This sort of "the winners make the rules" approach is part of the broader partisan problem facing Washington and the polarization afflicting the nation more broadly. There is no trust between the two parties because they believe — and have some real justification for believing — that the other side will say and do literally anything to win.
Think about Reid's statement in another context. I have two little kids. What if I told my son, who has just started playing soccer, that his only aim was to win the game — no matter how he accomplished that goal. After all, it's not cheating unless someone can prove it, right?
Would anyone think that was either (a) good parenting or (b) broadly beneficial for society? No. That is the same logic Reid is applying here, but because we are all inured to the horribleness that is modern political strategy, people barely bat an eye. No, politics ain't beanbag. I get that. But allowing elected officials to say anything they want about people running for office — and requiring zero proof in order to report those claims — seems to be a bridge too far. And to defend that behavior by saying, "Well, we won, didn't we?" feels like the junior high school logic that shouldn't be employed by the men and women trusted with representing us in Washington — or anywhere else.