I'm guessing that Senate Democratic leader Harry Reid isn't actually a "dirty liar," which is what Republican National Committee chair Reince Priebus called him last week on national television.
That is to say, I suspect it's more likely that someone actually did tell Reid that Mitt Romney hasn't paid any taxes for 10 years than that Reid just made the story up. Reid says that his informant was a Bain investor, and in the ultra-competitive world of high finance in which Bain investors operate -- at least the kind privileged to talk on the phone with the senate majority leader -- it's probably not hard to find one rich man who's willing to say something bad about another.
I'm guessing that's what happened. This isn't to say that the allegation is actually true. Nor am I interested in defending the propriety of Reid's allegation, with its scant, anonymous evidence and no proof.
But surely Reid's questionable comment calls for a little context: Why is Priebus so shocked that a member of the opposition raises an unsupported allegation in the final stages of an election that may have an impact on the country for years? The stakes are high and both sides are desperate to win.
Of course, not every tactic is justified. But it's worth noting that NPR interviewed an unemployed Florida citizen last week who said he'd been spending a lot of time listening to Rush Limbaugh and believes Barack Obama "hates white people."
Also last week, Sean Hannity interviewed a Las Vegas odds maker whose "gut" tells him Obama attended Columbia and Harvard as a foreign-exchange student on an Indonesian passport. He says nobody at Columbia remembers Obama, maybe because he was "too busy smoking pot, attending Marxist meetings, and plotting the destruction of the U.S. economy and the overthrow of capitalism." But the odds maker says his "gut is almost always right."
The Web is replete with doctored photographs of Obama with the wrong hand over his heart during a performance of "The Star-Spangled Banner." Last week, an email arrived with pictures of the Cook County (Ill.) Correctional Center's luxurious prisoners' quarters, complete with Ping-Pong tables, weight rooms, and televisions in every well-appointed cell, all courtesy of Barack Obama. It turns out that the facility pictured is in Austria.
And "birtherism" just won't die.
In short, this is a winner-take all, no-holds-barred brawl of an election, and the suggestion that Romney may have paid no taxes for a decade seems mild in the context of the mud that's been thrown the other way.
Of course, you may say that it's one thing for private citizens like Limbaugh, Hannity and mostly anonymous Web phonies to fling disingenuous muck in Obama's direction, but quite another when the culprit is the majority leader of the U.S. Senate.
Your point is well taken. At the same time, Republicans haven't refrained from using the offices of government to manipulate any advantage, no matter how slight, in what promises to be a close election.
At least 33 states have implemented voter ID laws under the ostensibly noble guise of putting an end to voter fraud. But voter fraud is extremely infrequent, and it's clear that these voter ID laws, mostly proposed and passed by Republican legislatures and governors, are meant to suppress the vote among the poor, the elderly, minorities and students, groups that tend to vote Democratic.
In an election this close, the disenfranchisement of, by some estimates, as many as 5 million citizens could swing the election.
So, there's Reid's injudicious allegation, which may or may not be true. Then there's a systematic campaign by one party to keep voters who are more likely to vote for the other party away from the polls.
Which one is most likely to do serious harm to our republic?
(John Crisp teaches in the English Department at Del Mar College in Corpus Christi, Texas.)