Commentary: For Trump and Clinton, there are lies, damned lies - and politics

Who’s being called the bigger liar, Republican presumptive presidential nominee Donald Trump or Democratic presumptive presidential nominee Hillary Clinton? Which of their reputed lies are more likely to keep the candidate out of the White House?

Donald Trump speaks at a campaign event as several states, including California, held presidential primaries, at the Trump National Golf Club Westchester in Briarcliff Manor, New York, June 7, 2016 REUTERS/Carlo Allegri

It probably doesn’t matter. History show that charges of lying are unlikely to harm either one.

The charges of lying in this campaign recall Isaiah Berlin’s essay about the hedgehog and fox: Critics accuse Clinton of one big lie, while Trump is charged with a great many lies.

Clinton’s alleged falsehood involves her private email server while she was secretary of state: why she established it, how forthcoming she was with State Department officials, how open she was once it was discovered, what it may have concealed.

Trump, meanwhile, is charged with lies almost too numerous to catalogue: No, the country’s “real” unemployment rate is not 42 percent. No, Trump will not eliminate the $19 trillion U.S. debt in eight years. No, Russian President Vladimir Putin did not call him a genius. No, no, no, no, no . . . .

The United States is beset by serious problems, ranging from persistent inequality at home and Islamist radicalism abroad to the seemingly intractable quicksand in Washington. But so far the 2016 presidential campaign has been largely preoccupied with the question of which candidate has the worse character -- including which one has the more egregious propensity to tell whoppers.

Though focusing on character is not a bad thing in a presidential race, it can be complicated. Even lying is not so easy to judge. How do voters tell which of the candidates’ statements are lies and which are just garden-variety spin? Or assertions of personal conviction, or the exaggerations that come with colloquial speech?

Then, how do voters tell how important a reputed lie is? Does it depend on whether it involves public or private behavior? Whether it’s about past actions or future intentions? Whether or not the thing that it’s hiding is illegal?

But not to worry: You probably won’t have to address these conundrums. If you’re trying to figure out which of the varied alleged lies will outrage the populace and sink a quest for public office, history demonstrates that you’ll have a hard time finding them.

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In campaigns, the issue of out-and-out lying, as opposed to more indirect truth-twisting, is not so common as you might suppose. But it was central during the 1884 presidential campaign, when Republican James G. Blaine ran against Democrat Grover Cleveland. Democrats tried hard to make Blaine’s alleged mendacity a key issue, claiming that he had not only engaged in corruption but, worse, lied about it.

The corruption charge first arose in 1872, when Blaine, then House speaker, was accused of taking bribes to ignore fraudulent railroad contracts. His opponents, though, were unable to produce proof.

In 1876, new corruption rumors emerged. This time, the story was that the Union Pacific Railroad had bribed Blaine by paying him $64,000 for worthless railway bonds. House Democrats forced an investigation. The testimony seemed to favor Blaine – until one clerk said that he had helped arrange the transaction, and had letters to prove it. Some of the correspondence ended, “Kindly burn this letter.”

The corruption charge was then compounded by a cover-up charge – which, as we now know, is more likely to singe.

Blaine survived that investigation. But in the 1884 presidential campaign, Democrats revived the charges. By this time, additional incriminating correspondence had surfaced. Blaine had to admit it was real. He insisted it did not prove he had lied. But Democrats began to chant, “Blaine! Blaine! James G. Blaine! The continental liar from the state of Maine!” They also had another, briefer version: “Burn this letter! Burn this letter!”

That was about as central as a charge of lying can get in a presidential campaign. It certainly didn’t do Blaine any good. Even so, Cleveland’s victory probably turned less on what was proved about Blaine’s lies than on the three-way split in the Republican Party and on a speech by a Blaine ally, who insulted swing-state Irish voters by calling Democrats the party of “rum, Romanism and rebellion.”

In other words, even when lies envelop a campaign, it’s still not easy to move lying to the top of the electorate’s list of concerns.

The same may be true in 2016. The charges against Clinton may, as before, fail to stick; and the charges against Trump may be drowned in the resentment that fuels his appeal.

Clinton’s critics offer a litany of reasons going back almost three decades: her secretive healthcare policy task force, the Rose law firm records, the damage control that extricated her husband from a cascade of sexual accusations. After leaving office, the former secretary of state’s really big speaking fees. Her critics insist she was currying favor with Wall Street plutocrats in the speeches, no matter what she says bout financial regulation.

So, as the investigations of her private email server have ratcheted up, critics keep saying that the other shoe may finally drop. (They have been talking about this shoe for years.) She has lost the benefit of the doubt, they insist - partly because of circumstance and partyly because of her own behavior.

Trump’s problem is far different. His speech is littered with lies – like shards of glass strewn all over the highway after a monumental auto accident. Yet all the fact-checking by all the news organizations hasn’t yet produced even a shudder on the dial of public opinion.

It must be admitted that some of the fact-checking is infected by the checkers’ impotent hatred of Trump. Does Trump’s claim that there’s “nothing to learn” from his tax returns merit four Pinocchios? Who knows, until the returns are released? When Trump says the official unemployment numbers are “phony” because “if you stop looking for a job you’re essentially considered employed,” does the statement really belong on Politico’s “lies” list? (True, you’re not called “employed;” but you’re certainly not counted in the unemployment rate.)

Still, the unambiguous untruths seem plentiful enough. So what’s the reason for the absence of traction? One reason could be that the people the fact-checkers want to persuade are supporting Trump precisely because they see him as rich and powerful enough to stick it to the fact-checkers on their behalf.

Clinton has not been caught in any consequential lie and her opponents won’t likely be able to make it into a major campaign issue without an actual indictment -- not the talk of one.

In the same way, if Trump’s opponents want to snuff out the power based on of his purported lies, they can’t do it by contradicting what he says. Instead, they will have to show his followers that, like the wizard of Oz, he is not really so great and powerful. It will be this revelation of weakness, not any proven lies, that could perhaps trigger a meltdown.

Maybe that’s why Trump won’t back down in accusing the judge in the Trump University suit of having a conflict of interest because he’s a “Mexican:” If there’s a ruling in federal court that Trump University was a fraud, it might help to label Trump the one thing above all else he doesn’t want to be – a loser.

If either of these candidates is done in, it won’t be because of what they said -- but because of more profound vulnerabilities.

About the Author

Suzanne Garment, a lawyer, is the author of “Scandal: The Culture of Mistrust in American Politics.”

The views expressed in this article are not those of Reuters News.