Carly Fiorina tells lies. We have witnessed this during both of the prime-time Republican presidential debates in which she has appeared. In her zeal to demonize Planned Parenthood during the first debate, she described a gory scene purportedly included in one of the infamous doctored videos released by anti-abortionists—a scene that simply does not exist, as numerous journalists, conservatives among them, have pointed out. In her second appearance, she focused on the U.S. tax code, claiming that it is 73,000 pages long and boasted that she would reduce it to three. A quick check, however, shows the U.S. Internal Revenue Code to be a bit shy of 5,000 pages. Fiorina also argued that 92 percent of the jobs lost during Obama’s first term were women’s jobs, a claim that, again, was widely debunked immediately following the debate.
We are clearly living in a time in which lying by political leaders has become commonplace. But the nature of Fiorina’s particular untruths, and the public’s reactions to them, will offer a fascinating case study of just how many blatant falsehoods voters are willing to overlook.
To be sure, Fiorina is hardly the only candidate who has been playing fast and loose with the truth. A robust fact-checking operation is now in place for post-debate analysis across the board. But, overall, Fiorina’s lies are of a different character than those of most of her fellow candidates. First, her false statements are instantly disprovable in ways that people can readily understand: Either the video showed the disputed scene or it didn’t, either the tax code is 73,000 pages or it isn’t, and so on. In contrast, much of the material on which the other candidates got fact-checked in the most recent debate related to the ramifications of tax policy—a subject that can be confusing to many people, and that involves fact-checkers getting into the weeds of arcane details before a claim can be disproved.
Second, Fiorina has the habit of forcefully doubling down on her claims when she is confronted with the truth. For example, it turns out that Mitt Romney, during his presidential campaign, also used the 92 percent statistic cited above. Eventually, though, he ceased to do so when shown the evidence that it was incorrect. Yet Fiorina, when offered the same opportunity to retract, angrily denounced the CNN reporter who was interviewing her, as seen in this testy exchange. The candidate also took the opportunity in that interview to once again restate the “truth” of her claim about the Planned Parenthood video.
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So how will this habit of brazenly lying and then sticking to her point affect Fiorina’s chances? After her first appearance at a prime-time debate, she shot up in the polls, only to recede in the following weeks. After this most recent debate, she is down to 3 percent. With respect to her initial rise in the polls after the debate in which she made false claims about the Planned Parenthood video, one could argue that lying, rather than being a problem for her, proved rather to be an advantage in the short term, given that the Republican base has been whipped into a frenzy of hatred of that organization. But those numbers then plummeted, suggesting that her strategy of using untruths, particularly to bash Planned Parenthood, will likely not work to make her an ultimately successful presidential candidate—though it will clearly be a central part of her campaign going forward.
Again, voters are clearly used to political duplicity in some capacity, especially where reproductive rights are concerned. It is not surprising that Stephen Colbert came up with the concept of “truthiness” in the midst of the not long-ago George W. Bush years. That era saw Bush’s spectacular lie about the presence of weapons of mass destruction in Iraq; the hubris of the Bush official who famously proclaimed “we are an empire now and we create our own reality”; and of course the unending misinformation about reproductive health. The latter, which inspired the arguments that emergency contraception causes an abortion, that HIV is spread through sweat and tears, that abortion leads to sterility and suicide, and so on, continue to reverberate among conservatives. The surreal degree to which lying about reproductive matters became routine is embodied by former Arizona Sen. Jon Kyl’s concession that his claim that 90 percent of Planned Parenthood’s services are abortion (the correct figure is 3 percent) was “not intended to be a factually based statement.”
Yet I believe that nationally, most people do not respect those who habitually lie and do not want them as their leaders—consider how Jeb Bush has had trouble answering for his brother’s record, showing how those distortions still resonate more than a decade later. Furthermore, Planned Parenthood is an organization whose approval rating has far exceeded that of any of the Republican candidates, including Fiorina’s. If attacking it with easily disproved, blatantly untrue arguments is the main arrow in Fiorina’s quiver, she will ultimately go nowhere politically with the public as a whole, and her support will be limited to the most fervid Republican primary voters.