Neil Macdonald: The fact-free campaign for the U.S. presidency

The selection of Paul Ryan, the man with the plan, to be Mitt Romney's running mate suggested the Republicans were ready for an adult conversation about America's problems. That's not the turn this campaign took, Neil Macdonald writes.

So, um, about that "adult conversation." Never mind.

Last week I wrote that by choosing Paul Ryan to be his vice-presidential running mate, Mitt Romney might actually end up provoking Americans into discussing something important like the indebted state of their nation's finances.

Ryan, the Wisconsin congressman who chairs the House budget committee, is the author of a fiscal plan that, whatever its other shortcomings, actually comes right out and says Americans cannot expect to keep collecting generous social benefits if they don't want to pay for them with higher taxes.

Ryan would, over time, effectively do away with Medicare, the burgeoning health-care program for seniors, as it now exists, and drastically reduce the rest of government.

The result may well be miserable for those people who aren't wealthy, but it can be done, and at least it's a plan.

Hence the possibility of the "adult conversation" that has been simultaneously called for and avoided by Republicans and Democrats for years.

Sure. And then release the flying pigs.

Whining about rich people

Since Ryan's nomination two weeks ago, the presidential campaign has been dominated by the usual dissembling, timidity and outright stupidity. (Example: the almost medieval notion of Republican Todd Akin that, in the case of "legitimate rape," a woman's body can somehow will away any pregnancy.)

President Barack Obama, who raised the most campaign money of any politician in U.S. history four years ago, seems to spend much of his time now whining about how rich people are writing huge cheques to Mitt Romney.

More to the point, the president who promised to tell Americans what they need to hear has been stubbornly vague about how he would carry out the spending cuts that everyone knows are coming.

The Romney campaign, meanwhile, should be preserved and taught to political science students as a textbook example of dumbing down political discourse.

Who built what exactly?

Barack Obama, taking aim at the mega-rich? (Associated Press)

Romney's rallying cry at the moment is "We did build it!" Huge banners proclaiming the slogan fly over almost all his events. Crowds chant it on cue.

The line is meant as a smackdown to Obama, who, according to a legend Republicans are busy trying to create, informed America's entrepreneurs last month that they did not build their own businesses.

Here, in fact, is what Obama said on July 13: "If you were successful, somebody along the line gave you some help …

"Somebody helped to create this unbelievable American system that we have that allowed you to thrive. Somebody invested in roads and bridges. If you've got a business … you didn't build that. Somebody else made that happen."

Hardly controversial, one would think. Where would any business be without the schools, power grids, roads, public transit systems, law enforcement, fire departments and all the other support systems upon which modern societies stand? And of course, let's not forget all those government subsidies, grants and tax incentives steered to businesses by friendly politicians.

These things are paid for by revenues raised from the general population.

But Americans, especially American conservatives, love to see themselves as accomplishing all these things despite government.

So the Romney campaign has taken the partial quote "If you've got a business … you didn't build that," and held it up as proof that Obama is some kind of socialist.

Go to YouTube and listen to the quote. Listen to the delivery. Decide for yourself. It's utterly clear what Obama is saying, unless you are stubbornly disposed to hear something else. 

But facts and reason don't matter in modern American politics, and Romney senses the public can be made to believe Obama has insulted America's treasured myth about the American dream and the self-made man.

In a similar vein, the Romney campaign is running ads accusing Obama of gutting the highly popular bipartisan welfare reforms of the Clinton era, which oblige recipients to work for their benefits.

In fact, the administration's changes were in response to requests from state governors, some of them Republicans, for more flexibility in imposing the welfare law. Welfare recipients still have to work.

CNN, among others, has done painstaking research and pronounced the Romney claim false, but no matter. People hear what they want to hear, and Romney's strategists clearly understand everything can be argued or interpreted to suit ideology.

The Akin mess

But there is risk in impressionistic, fact-free campaigning, as Romney is discovering.

His team is now desperately trying to dump Akin, the Missouri congressman running for a U.S. Senate seat, for his stunningly foolish views on abortion.

Paul Ryan, the GOP's vice-presidential candidate, whips up the crowd in Roanoke, Va., on Wednesday.

Never mind the medical ignorance of what Akin said. ("If it's a legitimate rape, the female body has ways to try to shut that whole thing down.")

Most women don't distinguish between legitimate and illegitimate rape, and given that women vote, just about the entire Republican leadership, including vice-presidential candidate Paul Ryan, has been trying, in vain, to persuade Akin to drop out of the race.

A complicating factor though, is that Akin and Ryan were among the original co-sponsors of House Bill HR3, which would have, in its original incarnation, banned federal funding for abortion, except in cases of "forcible rape." The word "forcible" was dropped under pressure, and the bill never cleared the Senate, meaning it is not law, but Ryan is now being lumped in with Akin.

He's fighting back, telling interviewers that "rape is rape," while refusing to explain what "forcible rape" meant in the first place. He has fallen into line with Romney's latest pronouncements on abortion and says he now favours exceptions for any rape.

Still, Democrats and their liberal supporters in the media are overjoyed at this turn of events, knowing the supreme power of an impression.

Maureen Dowd of the New York Times, for example, has compared Ryan to the Taliban.

Well, I doubt Paul Ryan has much in common with Mullah Omar. But it's all just as much a sideshow as the Obama-is-a-socialist theme that the Republicans bandy about.

Abortion is settled law in this country and women tend to regard it as a right. It is highly unlikely lawmakers will recriminalize the procedure, and highly unlikely the courts would allow them to if they tried.

Debt and out-of-control spending, though, are real. Another recession may happen, especially if Europe cannot contain its economic problems.

But that stuff is complicated, and requires serious thought.

Creating nonsensical controversies is a lot more fun and, party strategists evidently feel, a lot more effective.

These are adults out there talking. But in no other way has this campaign resembled an adult conversation.