Can Obama or Romney Be Honest With Us?

Who's winning, who's losing, and why.
April 25 2012 6:53 PM

Can You Be Honest With Me?

Is either Barack Obama or Mitt Romney capable of telling American voters some hard truths?

Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney, left, and U.S. President Barack Obama, right.
Can we expect either candidate to be candid on camera in the general election race between Mitt Romney and Barack Obama?

Jessica Kourkounis/Getty Images; Sara D. Davis/Getty Images.

Expecting presidential candidates to be candid with voters is such a quaint idea you'd expect to find it on Pinterest. There it is, next to the adorable confectionery and wedding dog photos. Well, I like quaint, and if you also like a Dr. Seuss saying stenciled on an ambiguous decorative item, then join me on my search for candor in the 2012 presidential campaign. I need your help.

John Dickerson John Dickerson

John Dickerson is Slate's chief political correspondent and author of On Her Trail. Read his series on the presidency and on risk.

We need honesty now more than ever. There are big decisions to be made. A $1 trillion deficit requires a retooling of much of the federal government and a reworking of the tax code. At the very least, Americans are going to have to accept big changes in what they've come to expect from their government. Or they may have to face brutal reductions in public services they count on like the military or quality medical care for the elderly.

Mitt Romney attacks President President Obama for not being candid, saying his hot mic moment with the Russian president “calls his candor into serious question.” The Obama team makes the same charge about nearly every word that comes out of Romney’s mouth. In the books each candidate has written, they’ve both said that a lack of honesty is what’s ruining politics.

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Successful politicians must shade the truth, embellish it, and keep everyone happy by avoiding it. But if this year’s contenders are going to go on so much about candor, it’s worth asking how honest has either candidate actually been. At a later date we’ll try to figure out who tells hard truths more often. First, though, we’ll need a baseline: What is the most candid thing each candidate has said? I asked each campaign to furnish an example. By candid, I don’t mean specific. I mean, what’s the best example of a candidate saying something honest enough to cause voters a moment of discomfort.

Mitt Romney:
“Our next president is going to face difficult choices. Among these will be the future of Social Security and Medicare. In their current form, these programs will go bankrupt.  I know that, you know that, and even our friends in the other party know that. The difference is that I will be honest about strengthening and preserving them, and they won’t.”

Being candid about how you're going to be candid is no kind of candor at all. Taking credit for honesty you're not actually offering while criticizing the other party for not being honest compounds the offense, creating a net reduction in candor. Romney could say that under the plan he favors, Medicare recipients who expect a defined benefit will have to switch to a plan in which the contribution is defined. That would get a conversation going.

Romney has been specific about the tax rate reductions people will get, but when it comes to being specific about how those reductions will be paid for, he's less so. The Wall Street Journal reports his economic advisers are having trouble getting the numbers to add up in a way that isn’t politically unpopular.

Of course, Romney had his own hot-mic moment a couple weeks back when he appeared to be speaking candidly with wealthy campaign donors. Some journalists overheard Romney offering a Dixie cup of detail about closing loopholes for mortgage interest deduction for second homes and trimming some federal departments. But apparently if we thought we heard some candid ideas from the Republican challenger, we were mistaken. Romney’s campaign quickly rushed forward to say he was just repeating ideas he had heard on the campaign trail.

President Obama:
“So this notion that somehow we’re offering smoke and mirrors—try to tell that to the Democrats out there, because part of what we’ve done is we’ve been willing to cut programs that we care deeply about, that are really important, but we recognize that given the fiscal situation that we’re in, everybody has got to make some sacrifices; everybody has got to take a haircut.”

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