Why the Democrats Need to Defend Mitt Romney Against Harry Reid

If you're a Democrat who hates slander and McCarthy-style tactics for political advantage, then you have to call Reid out for lying about Romney's taxes.

Here’s what I’d like to tell you: That Harry Reid is probably telling the truth when he says a little birdie told him Mitt Romney didn’t pay taxes for years and years. That even if Harry Reid is lying, it’s OK, because Republicans say worse about Barack Obama. That even if Harry Reid is lying, it’s OK because Mitt hasn’t released his tax forms, so who knows what he’s hiding?

I’d like to tell you those things, because there’s part of me (and many liberals, I bet) that gets a brief, perverse pleasure watching Reid making evidence-free accusations against the GOP’s candidate for president. It’s nice to feel like our team is on offense for a change, right?

But here’s the problem: Reid’s allegations look and smell a lot like bullcrap.

Which means that Democrats have a choice: Stand with Reid and what appears to be a too-convenient falsehood for the sake of backing Romney into a corner? Or demand that their candidates and proxies try to adhere to objective, verifiable truth and some minimal standards of decency?

If you’re a liberal, you can probably understand the temptation to take the former option. Politics all-too-often resembles a nasty game of telephone, one that Republicans have apparently mastered better than Democrats. During the 1990s, Bill Clinton was regularly depicted by the right as a murderer and drug dealer; Obama, of course, has taken his lumps as an America-hating Muslim Kenyan who wasn’t even born in the United States. Karl Rove, meanwhile, rose to prominence during the last two decades with a no-holds-barred strategy that included (reputedly) depicting one opponent as a likely pedophile, and hinting in South Carolina that John McCain had fathered a black child.

So of course Democrats sometimes fantasize about flipping the tables, like this post at Booman Tribune did last Thursday:

“Mitt Romney isn’t really a Mormon. He’s an atheist who only went along with his father’s faith so he could duck the Vietnam draft. He didn’t actually try to convert anyone when he was in France either. In reality, he spent all his time in Monte Carlo gambling and buying high-end hookers. When his daddy found out what he was doing, he made him come home and marry his high school sweetheart. Actually, he only made him marry her after the second time she got pregnant. The first time, they got an abortion. Then Romney started using some of the mafia connections he had made in Marseilles to import heroin. By the time he became governor, they were flying it straight into a secret airport they set up in the Berkshires. When one of the pilots started to talk, Romney had him killed.”

Everything in that paragraph was made up, of course. But the fact Democrats haven’t been spreading such rumors, The Daily Kos said in response, is proof of their virtue: “One side pretends to be moral and full of wholesome values. The other side actually lives those values,” Kos wrote. “It’s not hard to see which is which.”

Well, maybe. Here’s the thing: If your identity is based on being the party that doesn’t resort to lies and McCarthy-style tactics for political advantage, then you have to call Harry Reid out on his crap.

Why? Because there’s absolutely no reason to believe that Reid is telling the truth. He’s offered no witnesses and no proof of his claims, only a “somebody told me” statement that wouldn’t get within a million miles of passing muster in a court of law. And when challenged to present his evidence, his response is that Romney can prove Reid’s allegations wrong—by releasing his tax forms.

Politically clever? Yes. Distasteful? It absolutely should be.

Now: Romney should release his tax returns. You forfeit a certain amount of privacy when you run for president, and Americans have the right to judge whether your finances affect your fitness for office. Moreover, they have the right to judge your fitness if you depart from precedent and keep those finances hidden from the public.

But forcing his hand by resorting to unsourced gossip and “I don’t have to prove you’re guilty, you have to prove you’re innocent” tactics is, well, wrong.  And hypocritical: Dems hate it when it happens to them. To be fair, liberal commentators like blogger Kevin Drum and The Daily Show’s Jon Stewart have called Reid out. A lot of other folks, though, seem to be applauding Reid’s chutzpah. That’s not good.

Listen: We all know politics ain’t beanbag. And we all know that the truth is a pretty flexible thing once it gets in the hands of politicians.

But if we’re now at a point where we openly and knowingly root for our side to do a better job of lying to and misleading the public better than the other guys can, well, then, the game is over. Governance will have little relationship to the truth, and that will mean that democracy is all but done for. And Harry Reid? He’s helping dig the grave with every unsubstantiated comment he makes about Mitt Romney’s taxes.