Last week at the Republican National Convention in Tampa, vice presidential candidate Paul Ryan delivered a rousing attack on President Obama — full of distortions.
The president does, in fact, have a plan to reduce the deficit. He's not taking over health care. And he didn't break a promise to keep the General Motors plant in Ryan's hometown open; it closed before Obama even took office.
But truth in presidential politics, circa 2012, is no match for sincerity — or at least the appearance thereof. Ryan's small-town story and ideological fervor guaranteed resonance with the audience that matters most in an increasingly polarized republic: the base.
The emergence of a "post-truth" politics in this election cycle is disturbing; a Romney adviser's admonition that "we're not going to let our campaign be dictated by fact checkers" appalls.
But surely it's not as bad as it seems. Surely in local Congressional races, where voters are closer to the candidates — where there is no Fox News or MSNBC to launder the combatants' statements — the truth still matters.
Or does it?
Here in Rhode Island, we'll soon find out. Indeed, there may be no more fascinating case study in the uses of truth and sincerity — in the local context — than the fight for Congressman David Cicilline's seat.
This is a race born in mistruth.
Cicilline was serving as mayor of Providence when he ran for Congress in 2010. And his campaign declaration that the capital city was in "excellent" fiscal condition — a claim flatly contradicted by new mayor Angel Taveras after the election — spawned a sharp backlash.
The freshman Congressman's approval ratings plunged to Nixonian levels. And they're still quite poor.
I asked Jennifer Lawless, a former Brown University political science professor, why Cicilline's "excellent" comment has done so much more damage than, say, Ryan's untruths about Medicare.
Simple, she said. Providence's fiscal problems spawned a real and immediate crisis: apocalyptic headlines, talk of big tax hikes. At one point, the school department issued pink slips to every teacher in the city.
By contrast, Ryan's misleading claim that President Obama's healthcare law would "funnel" $716 billion from Medicare is wrapped up in complicated changes that are still some time off.
I might add that Cicilline's transgression seems more personal. He had a direct hand in guiding the Providence budget. And while Ryan's lies are, in a way, grander and more troubling — he's not merely making a power play, he's distorting the conversation on the big issues that guide our national life — his brand of tampering doesn't inspire the same visceral reaction.
But there's more to it than that. And here's where the local angle comes in.
Figures like Ryan may be well-known inside the Beltway, but they are little known outside it; public perception of their pronouncements is not colored by past experience.
Rhode Islanders, on the other hand, have been living with Cicilline for some time. Familiarity strips the finish, exposes flaws, breeds cynicism. Indeed, if Cicilline's first term as Providence mayor was charmed — he was the reformer scrubbing away former mayor Vincent A. "Buddy" Cianci Jr.'s dark stain — his second was not.