WASHINGTON -- Suddenly it's all about honesty. Seriously?
President Barack Obama, who's been peddling a nonexistent peace dividend for a year, and Mitt Romney, who's misrepresented "Obamacare" at every turn, are after each other for not being straight with the people.
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Romney questioned Obama's veracity face to face and repeatedly in their first debate, asserting at one point, "You're entitled to your own airplane and your own house, but not your own facts" in office.
Now it's payback time for Obama and his supporters, defensive after the president's underwhelming performance Wednesday night.
"You owe the American people the truth," Obama said Thursday, speaking to a crowd but addressing his opponent as if he were there.
Obama's statements about Romney's truthfulness were sharp in their own right but, as is the custom, underlings on both sides are taking the rhetoric even further and perhaps over the top.
Obama adviser David Axelrod called Romney "devoid of honesty," a deliverer of "fraudulent" lines, a man who was "hiding the truth and the facts." The Obama campaign released a series of online videos, each with the mantra, "Romney won't tell the truth," about Medicare, energy, taxes and more.
Romney campaign spokeswoman Amanda Henneberg in turn accused Obama of telling "lies" about Romney's record. This word once was reserved for thermonuclear anger: History won't forget Bob Dole telling George Bush to "stop lying about my record" in their 1988 Republican primary contest.
But it's been thrown around fairly loosely in the anything-goes slog of the 2012 campaign. Jen Psaki, speaking for the Obama campaign, accused Romney on Friday of "lying about the cause" of high unemployment.
To the left and to the right, people who live in glass houses are throwing stones.
Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, a Nevada Democrat, said Romney was "peddling snake oil" by hiding details of his tax plan. This, from a senator who persistently and wrongly accused Romney of paying no income taxes for years.
An Associated Press-GfK poll last month found an advantage for Obama on one measure of authenticity. In the poll, 50 percent of likely voters picked Obama as the candidate who "more often says what he really believes" while only 42 percent said Romney is more likely to do so.
In a Pew Research Center poll that month, 48 percent of registered voters said Obama was more "honest and truthful," to 34 percent who felt Romney was. A CBS News/New York Times survey earlier in September asked separately whether each candidate was honest and trustworthy: 58 percent of likely voters described Obama that way, while 53 percent said that of Romney.
The Republican has a history of changing positions, on guns, gay rights, abortion and more. That has raised questions about his core beliefs, doubts fed by a primary campaign in which he had to cater to the party's conservative base before broadening his appeal to the more moderate electorate at large.
Obama didn't have that challenge in this election, and his own flip-flops, notably on gay marriage and whether everyone should be required to carry health insurance (his new answer, yes, is now law), haven't stuck in the same way. Like him or not, people tend to see him as the real deal.
Even so, the bustling cottage industry of fact-checking has had plenty of raw material from both candidates, and last week's debate was no exception. In part, that was because it delved into the intricacies of Medicare, tax policy, the deficit and more to deliver a substantive if misshapen civics lesson, full of facts but not always real ones.
Familiar misstatements that both candidates have been called out on in the past were trotted out for another go, this time in front of a huge TV audience.
Obama spoke of taking "some of the money that we're saving as we wind down two wars to rebuild America," reprising a claim that was debunked from his State of the Union address and many times since. Because the Iraq and Afghanistan wars were paid for mostly by borrowing, stopping them doesn't create a new pool of cash to spend on anything else. More broadly, his promise to cut $4 trillion from the deficit rests in large part on accounting tricks and savings already achieved in law.
Romney, a former Massachusetts governor, presented Obama's health care law yet again as a budget buster that could yield big savings if repealed, despite the nonpartisan forecast of the Congressional Budget Office that the law actually will reduce the deficit at least a little. Romney's pledge to balance the budget while cutting taxes, increasing military spending and restoring more than $700 billion in Medicare cuts over 10 years is based on strikingly incomplete accounting, the basis for Obama's complaint that his rival isn't coming clean.
And the political ads? Hold on to your hat.
The Romney campaign set a tone for dishonest discourse nearly a year ago with a commercial that had Obama saying: "If we keep talking about the economy, we're going to lose." In fact, Obama was quoting his 2008 rival, Arizona Sen. John McCain. Romney's ad people sliced up Obama's fuller comment, "Sen. McCain's campaign actually said, and I quote, 'If we keep talking about the economy, we're going to lose,'" and used it to put McCain's words seemingly in Obama's mouth.
More recently, the pro-Obama Priorities USA Action super political action committee ran an ad implicating Romney in the cancer death of a woman whose husband lost his job and health insurance at a Kansas City steel plant taken over by Bain Capital, Romney's former private equity firm, five years earlier. No link was established between his layoff and her death, and the ad seemed to go beyond the pale for Obama himself. "I don't think that Gov. Romney was somehow responsible for the death," he said.
But does the new focus on honesty mean the high road is finally ahead? One test of that will come Thursday, in the vice presidential debate.
It pits Vice President Joe Biden, a master of excitable exaggeration, against Wisconsin Rep. Paul Ryan, who grossly understated his time in a 1990 marathon and audaciously criticized Obama for failing to act on the report of a fiscal commission that Ryan himself voted against.
This political marathon, at least, only has a month to go.