WASHINGTON – Conservatives leapt to their feet when Republican presidential hopeful Mitt Romney declared Democrats the party of ”No!” – no to balanced budgets, limits on lawsuits, tax cuts and tough interrogations of terror suspects.

But their applause this week at the Conservative Political Action Conference was for an illusion. Romney’s assertions lacked context at best and at worst were flat-out wrong.

While Romney and fellow Republicans were filling the air with red-meat distortions, liberal Democratic activists were torturing facts online as they wrote commentary about the conservative gathering.

Americans are almost numb to it by now, expecting politicians and their allies to fudge facts. President Obama embellishes the number of jobs created by last year’s stimulus bill while Republicans claim, incorrectly, that not a single job resulted from the measure.

So what? All politicians play fast and loose with the truth, right?

Such distortion and dishonesty cause Americans to be increasingly skeptical of – even cynical about – their political institutions and leaders. Once people lose faith in the political system, they’re less likely to vote, less willing to pay taxes to support government-run programs, less motivated to run for office themselves and – sociologists say – they’re even less likely to get involved in their own communities.

These are consequences of cutting corners in the public square.

And so it’s worth noting when Romney, the former Massachusetts governor positioning himself for the 2012 presidential race, tells the CPAC crowd that Democrats are opposed to tax cuts.

He conveniently left out the fact that the stimulus bill backed by Obama and approved by the Democratic-led Congress included $288 billion in tax benefits, including refundable credits of $400 for individuals and $800 for families in 2009 and 2010 covering about 95 percent of taxpayers.

Democrats are against balanced budgets? You might chalk that up to harmless hyperbole except for important facts that Romney overlooked: A Democratic president, Bill Clinton, oversaw surpluses and the U.S. debt skyrocketed under President Bush, a conservative Republican.

Romney could have pointed to projections of deepening deficits on Obama’s watch — more than $9 trillion from 2010 through 2019. But it’s easier to say Democrats are against balanced budgets, even if that’s bogus.

Romney said Democrats are against ”tort reform,” or the limiting of lawsuits. Actually, Obama has put this idea on the table in an effort to get Republicans to address the troubled health care system.

Finally, Romney followed Republican talking points by suggesting that the Obama administration went easy on the 23-year-old Nigerian accused of trying to blow up a plane over Detroit in December. If a Republican were president, Romney said, ”a conversation with a would-be suicide bomber would not begin with ‘You have a right to remain silent.’”

The fact is the conversation with Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab did not begin with a Miranda warning, and he cooperated with FBI agents to the point of turning against the cleric who claims to be his teacher. Abdulmutallab also has helped the U.S. hunt for the radical preacher.

Several Republicans at CPAC denounced Obama for putting suspected terrorists in the criminal system rather than trying them in military tribunals. While that’s a legitimate point of debate in this era of terrorism, Obama’s critics seem to have forgotten — or they chose to ignore — simple facts: The Bush administration sent many terrorists to prison, including a 9/11 co-conspirator and a man who tried to bring down an airplane with a bomb in his shoe.

All were read their rights. All got lawyers. All appeared in court.

In these hyper-partisan times, it’s rarely good enough to respond to an unfair attack with a factual argument. Fire is fought with more high heat. And so it was this week, when liberal bloggers reacted to the CPAC distortions with false attacks of their own. On the Daily Kos Web site, one blogger noted the standing ovation given to ”the self-confessed war criminal Dick Cheney.”

Whatever one might think of his interrogation policies, the former vice president has never been charged with a war crime, much less confessed to one.

No matter. The same blogger criticized anti-liberal protests at CPAC, adding with a rare burst of evenhandedness: ”Some of what went on was the same kind of silliness partisans of all stripes engage in.”


Ron Fournier is the Washington bureau chief for The Associated Press.


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