Full credit for faking it

I spared myself most of last night’s low-budget remake of The Garbage Pail Kids Movie marathon Republican debate, but the conventional wisdom seems to be coalescing over a couple of related points:

  • Donald Trump was the night’s big loser, in part because
  • Carly Fiorina was the night’s big winner

Now, the media that appears to be in consensus that Trump had a bad night is, collectively, the same media that’s predicted Trump’s imminent collapse approximately 7812 times over the past two or three months, so on the one hand there’s no reason to believe them this time, but on the other hand, they’re bound to be right one of these days!

"Hey, I thought that Trump guy did great. Really great."
“Hey, I thought that Trump guy did great. Really great.”

But it’s Fiorina’s smashing success that interests me, because it illuminates, again, what’s wrong with the political press in this country. Fiorina is being lauded for a couple of things: she apparently put Trump in his place, she showed a strong command of foreign policy in answering a question about Russia, and she really nailed a question about Planned Parenthood. Did she put Trump in his place? I don’t know, I didn’t watch. That’s a subjective thing, and something tells me that Trump’s supporters won’t see it that way, but sure, whatever, mission accomplished. But Fiorina’s other two big hits are more or less questions of fact, and here’s the thing: she doesn’t really have any. Her big, emotional response to the Planned Parenthood question was a flat-out lie, and she demonstrated her “command of foreign policy” by uttering a bunch of factish-sounding words that, when put together, made almost no sense whatsoever. Being charitable, her answer to the Russia question sounded like she memorized a string of ideas and figures that some aide fed her, and she was able to recite it when prompted. Which I guess means she has a better memory than Rick Perry, but that’s not a very high bar to clear and it isn’t exactly a great qualification to be president.

But Fiorina was the big winner, we’re told. She achieved this in part because, and this is par for the course with our national press, what Fiorina said matters far less than how she said it. She was forceful on the PP question, and she sounded convincing on the Russia question, and that’s all anybody really cares about. Earlier this week, Matt Yglesias asked why the media seemed to be more interested in the Clinton email story than in picking apart the obvious (empirically demonstrated, in fact) pile of bullshit that is JEB’s tax plan. I actually think this is a bit of an unfair question, since the possibility of a serious national security breach makes Clinton’s email potentially a more serious story than another Bush running for president on the back of more lies about another regressive tax plan. But that doesn’t explain why really nobody other than Yglesias seems to be pointing out that JEB is lying.

One reason for that might be that JEB’s chances of winning the nomination already appear to be kaput, but it’s still early and he’s still the main establishment Republican candidate, so he’s still not out of the running. The other reason goes back to JEB’s brother, the originator of the Big Tax Lie campaign plan, and to the fact that the press simply doesn’t want to be bothered with the tedium of boring old fact checking. Remember, that’s what liberal (!) columnist Margaret Carlson told us all after the 2000 campaign, when the media similarly ignored the real policy lies of the Bush campaign in favor of pushing nonsense fluff about Gore:

Perhaps reporting in this vein was just too gratifying to the press for it to stop. As Time magazine’s Margaret Carlson admitted to Don Imus at the time, “You can actually disprove some of what Bush is saying if you really get into the weeds and get out your calculator, or look at his record in Texas. But it’s really easy, and it’s fun to disprove Al Gore. As sport, and as our enterprise, Gore coming up with another whopper is greatly entertaining to us.”

Laughing about made up crap like “I invented the internet” or “I discovered Love Canal” was easy! And fun! But actually reading about one of the candidates’ actual policies and picking apart its actual lies was OMG SO BOOOORING that it gave the press a collective sad face, so they said “LOL, what do you think we’re here for, to somehow ‘report’ on things that are ‘news’? Fuck that!” and then probably went off and got hammered at a bar somewhere.

The point is not to reargue the 2000 presidential campaign except insofar as to note how little has changed since then. The point is this: why would Carly Fiorina, or any other Republican candidate on the stage last night, ever bother actually studying an issue or telling the truth when the press will reliably give them top marks for just sounding like they’ve done those things? Studying stuff can be boring and occasionally hard, and it takes time away from building your brand by yapping on TV about the stuff you didn’t study. Worse, the truth often doesn’t comport to your preferred narrative. If there’s no penalty to pay for lying and/or faking it, then why would any candidate ever do anything else?

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