The Obama campaign offered several other examples that were very much like the one the Romney camp offered: quotes about how hard choices had to be made without being specific about what those choices would be. This quote, while offering no actual candor, does point to cuts in specific programs like home heating aid, community block grants, and education programs that are in the neighborhood of the type of hard truths we were looking for. They are bad news for voters that the president would like to keep happy.
The president has an advantage over Mitt Romney in this way. Because his actions have consequences—candidates, by contrast, can pretty much say any old thing—his aides can point to support for legislation like Dodd-Frank where the president’s advocacy damaged him with the banking industry. Several Democratic fundraisers have said this has led to the slow pace of fundraising on Wall Street.
The president could be very specific if he wanted to be. During the budget negotiations that collapsed surrounding the grand bargain, he considered some cuts to entitlement programs that he never talked about publicly. We're not likely to find out what those trade-offs are now that we're in an election season.
There is a known bug in this experiment. Campaign aides are not the best ones to ask about their candidate’s candor. The modern campaign is a series of emergency exercises where aides are trained to smother any compromising thought that makes a break for it. Romney has (rather candidly) talked about his specific strategy against specificity—the more detailed you are the more you'll be attacked.
I can, however, think of a moment when Mitt Romney told farmers and businessmen at a meeting in Treynor, Iowa, he wasn’t going to support their ethanol program. “I’m not running for office based on making promises of handing out money,” he said. "Let Detroit Go Bankrupt," was a pretty gutsy thing to say, too. (Although the campaign says that wasn't the governor's actual wording for the headline of the op-ed he wrote arguing against the auto bailout, it does approximate the sentiment of the piece.) Romney is paying more of a price for those words in the Midwest than Obama did in 2008 for his comments about fuel efficiency standards.
The lack of honesty in campaigning is nothing new. In 1920, H.L. Mencken observed that “the first and last aim of the politician is to get votes, and the safest of all ways to get votes is …to be happily free from any heretical treason to the body of accepted platitudes—to be filled to the brim with the flabby, banal, childish notions that challenge no prejudice and lay no burden of examination upon the mind.”*
Still, we must hope. Sure, candidates shouldn’t be asked to commit political suicide, but they must be brave enough to say something more bracing than a cloth diaper. So I will continue to look for examples of candor during the campaign season and try to break off pieces of it from the permafrost of the two campaigns. If you have a better example, please email me at firstname.lastname@example.org, and I’ll elevate it to the top of the running list. This isn’t necessarily an exercise in comparative candor. I’m just looking for the truest thing said by each candidate. Perhaps by the end of the campaign we might find an example of something Obama or Romney has said that’s provocative enough that we’d really want to tack it up on the wall, and say, “Hey, thanks for being honest.”
Correction, April 25, 2012: This article originally misspelled H.L. Mencken's name. (Return to the corrected sentence.)