Brad Hirschfield: The ethics of innuendo

Aug 08, 2012

Citing an anonymous source, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) suggested Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney did not pay any taxes for 10 years.

"Reid has refused to identify his source (or sources). Romney and his campaign aides have emphatically denied the charge but Reid has stood firm," the Washington Post's Fact Checker reported Tuesday.

Do Reid's comments flirt with McCarthy-like politics by accusation? Isn't this exactly what "birthers" did to President Obama?

Brad Hirschfield will live chat with readers at 1 p.m. ET about this topic. Submit questions and opinions for Brad to respond to now.

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Are you troubled by Sen. Harry Reid's unsubstantiated assertions regarding Gov. Mitt Romney's tax record?  Does it matter if Reid is willfully lying, as some suggest, or simply using innuendo instead of bringing actual evidence?  Isn't it wrong either way?


Is this simply about people willing to try anything to get their candidate elected?  Have we lost any sense of political decency and if so, isn't this a moment when real leaders should step in and say 'enough'?


What do you say?  Let's get started!

I actually didn't take Reid's claim literally- I sort of figure that his sources mean that Romney pays a very, very low rate which is comparably nothing. But I don't think that it's either McCarthy like or birther-like. Reid hasn't made a conclusion that Romney shouldn't have the job (at least not publically), which is what McCarthy and the birthers have done. He's approaching that line but doesn't cross it.

That Harry Reid doesn't think Mitt Romney should be President is a given, so it need not be stated, and if he meant what you think he meant, then he should say so.  In fact, he admantly refuses to either source his rumor or walk it back in the direction you suggest. 


Bottom line, that is not only outrageous, but in some way even worse than the birther position -- which to be clear is both outrageous and offensive.  Why potentially worse?  Because at least the birthers and McCarthy'ites were willing to take a position.  As it stands, Sen. Reid is willing to say things and leave well-intentioned people such as yourself to defend him.  So ultimately, his behavior, at least in this case,  is not only ugly, it is cowardly.

Romney is obviously embarrassed about something on his tax returns, but you can't be so thin-skinned when you are running for President. I'm sure President Obama didn't want to release his 2002 tax return when they jointly made $259000 dollars and gave a whopping $1050 to charity, but he did. My grandma on social security gives more than that.

How can you know what his inner feelings are?  I appreciate that it's a politically expedient conclusion for  those who oppose him to reach, but the fact is, that nobody but Romney and those closest to him can know why he has chosen this approach to his tax records.  On top of that, I can easily offer an alternative theory -- not because I think his chosen path has been wise, but because I think we all need to stop making claims about people's inner motivations simply to buttress our chosen conclusions.


What if Mitt Romney is simply tone-deaf to the demands of transparency -- not honestly, as nobody can demonstrate that he has been dishonest, but transparency.  One could easily imagine that especially for a member of a relgious community which has has experienced significant persecution, and still faces plenty of unfair bias against it, transparency doesn't come easily. 


I am not suggesting that an absence of tranparency is good, simply that it may not be reflective of something nefarious, and that a presumption to the contrary has no evidence to support it, at least in this case.



Given the number of white Americans who still believe in the myth of black laziness, I'm repulsed by Mitt Romney's talk of "free stuff from the government" and his false claim that Obama has expanded welfare. This type of coded language has its origins in Nixon and Thurmond's Southern Strategy. Would you agree that it's irresponsible to invoke these euphemisms when campaigning against a black politician?

I would not agree.  I simply don't think that mentioning the "free stuff from the gov't" which people get is code for anything.  I think it is a real reflection of how many if not most conservatives feel about welfare.  Whether I agree or not is irelevent, and certainly no excuse to label it racist, especially as more whites than blacks get public assistance.

What Reid is doing is not only unethical but dangerous. Our tax system does favor the 1 percent over everyone else. In many cases, large corporations not only pay no income taxes, but actually receive net rebates at taxpayer expense. We need to have a real debate about what constitutes a fair tax code, and Reid is standing in the way with his tactics. These may not be McCarthyist but they are birtherist without the racism. Does he really want to be thought of like Donald Trump and Orly Taitz?

Even those who would differ with you regarding your assessment of the tax code, should appreciate the wisdom of your analysis.  It IS dangerous, and reflective of a "win at all costs" approach that ultimately leaves us all worse off, no matter who wins the election.


when people in positions of power abuse that power and undermine trust in order to secure a short-term victory, they make the long-term work of governance increasingly impossible.  And so, if anything, Reid's comments set back the cause of real tax reform, in any direction.  As you rightly say, not only unethical, but dangerous.

I kind of think it's odd how the press, in general, accept that Sen. Majority Leader Reid is lying without any actual proof he is. But what irks me is that instead of just acting like claiming Barack Obama wasn't born in Honolulu is just crazy. The press reports always stated "we investiaged" and "statements from the director of the Hawaii Health Dept and Governor of Hawaii" and mentioning birth announcements in both of the local Honolulu newspapers. That's not exactly acting like this is a crazy claim, but something that had to be proven wrong.

I want to be clear -- I do not know that Sen. Reid is lying and would not claim that he is.  It Doesn't matter!  Whether he is willfully  lying or simply trading in anger-creating rumors whcih have no proof to back them up, his behavior is reprehensible, painfully simillar to the equally reprehensible attacks upon the presidence birth status to which the Sentaor rightly objected, and proof of political conduct which hurts the entore nation.  It's as simple as that.  But you are certainly correct that to assert that he is lying, is to "Harry Reid", Harry Reid.

I'm the last person to support Romney, but the President needs to step up himself and denounce these unsupported attacks by Reid. He doesn't get to use surrogates like Reid to do his dirty business. On the other hand, Romney is disclosing less financial information than his Cabinet nominees would be required to submit.

I could not agree more, and whatever impact this has on the election, I believe that the day will come when the President's legacy, let alone Sen. Reid's, will be tarnished by this behavior.  Leader's lead and the President is content to follow here in ways that do not measure up to his own standards of behavior.  Typically, when you want the job that badly, you aren't fir to hold it.


All that said,  I am mystifed by Romney's refusal to disclose more information, and I can't see how it doesn't do more harm that good.  No matter how little or much he paid, there is NO reason to suggest he ever did anything illegal, and he should be proud of that.


I'm a Democrat, full disclosure, but I still think Romney has nobody but himself to blame for this. Romney bucked convention and refused to release most of his recent tax returns (including the current year's). In an era of full disclosure, that decision sends a very clear message that there's information in those returns he doesn't want the public to know. It may be a complete stretch to even suggest that Romney paid no taxes whatsoever for an entire decade, but on the other hand Romney himself seems to be telling us that he has something to hide. Obama faced the birther accusations because he's not white, and some people can't get their heads around the idea that a darker-skinned guy with a weird name can still be a proud American. Whatever Obama said, whatever forms he released, whatever the State of Hawaii said, it was never enough to satisfy these people. I'm only open to the possibility that Romney didn't pay taxes, on the other hand, because Romney himself is behaving abnormally for a presidential candidate. In fact, the comparisons to birtherism show that that tactic continues to pay dividends. One of the extreme right's common complaints is about "balance," or giving both sides to a controversy, no matter how absurd one side may be. Global warming and evolution come to mind. And here, we see the effect again, as Romney supporters try to downplay their candidate's self-inflicted wound simply by saying "hey, it's birtherism redux." Thanks.

There is something odd about calling it a "self-inflicted wound" when a candidate refuses to address the unfounded fears of those who already oppose the candidate.  I agree that more transparency would be better, but as you point out with regard to the President, absurd rumors about him gained traction because of people's hostility to him for totally unrelated reasons -- in his case, you calim, his race. 


Assuming you are correct, what baseless and unrelated hatred do you think is fueling Sen. Reid and those who give any credance to what he his pedaling?  If it was hate that drove the birthers, then it stands to reason that it is hate that drives the "Reiders'.  Is that where we are?  it all come down to one group having extremists who hate black folks and the the other side with extremists who hate rich folks.  Pretty sad that either side would trade in such hatred.

The most interesting part of Harry Reid's attack on Romney is that it is SO blatant. I'm a so-called "liberal" and want Romney to be pressured to release his tax returns. But Reid clearly stepped (actually, leaped) over an ethical line of "well, I heard this crazy, nasty thing about you. Prove me wrong." That's a tactic of bullies. However, what I am most concerned about is not Harry Reid's bald-faced attempt to attack a political opponent, but more the types of innuendo attacks and statements that seem now to be a NORMAL and DAILY part of politics. These innuendo are much more subtle and therefore, much more effective. The type of innuendo that lead people to believe that Obama was born in Kenya. That Iraq was linked to 9/11. That no one in politics who isn't one of "us" is a liar and a thief. That's what worries me most. Not the over-the-top grand statements, but the subtler digs that have eroded the civility in America's politics.

I share your concern, and want to suggest a way in which all sides could train themselves to do better.  I know, this presumes that they want to, but given that neither side gets much done given the paralysis created by the innuendo-driven, trust-killing conspiracy ridden politcal culture we have, perhaps they should think about doing so -- not for the sake of "the other side", or civility, or even the welfare of teh nation, but simply in order to be more effective at achieveing that which they want to achieve.  So here's what to do:


Whenever you hear a theory which confirms or defends that which you already beleive, ask yourself where the evidence is.  If it all comes from one side, or leaves no room for further questions, disregard the theory -- it is propaganda and nothing more.  If however, you can obtain some actual evidence for theory being true, and you appreciate that there are still some unanswerd questions, then trust it.  

I have already lost hope that ads or attacks have any level of proof anymore, so my acceptance of Reid attack is just a reflection the lack of respect those in political office have for even the most basic decorum. However when Reid brought in family members he reached a new low, and that makes me question his make up not as a politician, but as a human being. This man has no bottom or decency.

I so apprecaite what you are saying, and yet there is plenty of evidence that Harry Reid is actually a quite decent human being.  I think that perhaps like you, he has lost hope, and is therefore willing to play a game with no rules.  My conclusion?  We must never give up hope because hopeless people do horrible things.  Once one assumes that all is lost, it's hard to maintain any kind of ethical behavior, so the real challenge is to keep hope alive, whatever side you support, and whoever wins, and demand that our politcians function in light of that hope.  When they don't, we should fire them, whatever party they come from.

I interpret Reid's position to be as follows: he first makes an accusation(based upon a source he will not identify) about Romney's nonpayment of taxes. When Romney balks at the accusation, Reid replies that Romney is the one holding the evidence and thus can resolve the question simply by releasing his tax returns. Regardless of whether Romney's release of his tax returns is a good idea (I think it is), the consequence of Reid's unsubtantiated accusation has been to flip the burden of proof, i.e., Reid (or anyone else) can say anything at all and leave it to (or require) the accused to disprove it. If that's the level of Reid's logic and/or the level of accepted public discourse these days, kindly include me out.

And even worse, is that no matter what Romeny does now (and I share your opinion that he should release those returns), Reid has succeeded in damaging people's opinion of the Gov.  It's like the story of the person who wanted to apologize to the victim of his rumors.  he went to do so and the victim said, "I accpet your apology, but you haven't fixed things because telling rumors is like slicing open a feather-filled pillow.  You can sew up the hole, but go try and recover all the feathers that have scatterd to the wind."  Rumors are dangerous things.

I assume that at some point, innuendo comes to a conclusion. Either it is shown to be true or false. If someone releases a piece of gossip without telling the source, I would assume they expect it to be quickly proven as true. If that is the case, they may feel comfortable in protecting their source. However, if it remains little more then innuendo after several days or even weeks, then either more proof is needed or it paints major doubts on the person who first told the gossip. Clearly, Romney is a little better off as he is the only person who should be able to demonstrate one way or the other that he paid taxes. There would be worse risks for someone to come out and say they illegally looked at the IRS records for Romney before making the claim that he hadn't paid his taxes.

Actually, this may not come to the conclusion you assume, and even if it does, it is like answering the question, "when did you stop beating your wife?"  Simply engaging the the question harms the one who must do so.  It's impossible to imagine that Sen Reid didn't know that, and hard to imagine that anything justifies what he did.

Slant and bias is one thing we can expect but the outright lies we are subjected to this go round is simply disheartening. Romney's latest claims about the Obama administration's granting of waivers to states regarding welfare to work programs, for one example, are out and out lies. But it is eagerly and voraciously believed. In all my 65 years I've never been so depressed about our society.

It IS disturbing, and in terms of politcal culture, things are pretty horrendous right now, but in so many other ways we have come very far.  In your 65 years there have been enormous accomplsihments in so many areas of human endevour, and we should not lose sight of that.  In fact, what we need to do is challenge politicians to keep up.


Also, we need to preserve the disticntion between lying and simply being wrong.  The two are not the same, but we all love the high horse we ride when failing to make the distinction.  Whoever you support in the election, or in anything im life, it's something to keep in mind.

I think that's exactly what is should be compared to. I think he's crossed the line, but I think they should have seen it coming. And if Romney produces the returns, I don't think anyone's going to call them fakes.

We agree about everything except your confidence that should those returns ever be released, there will not be masses of "returner" to match the birthers of years past.

You made a funny... seriously, its a sad thing when this is what our political discourse has turned into. There are so many important things that should be the topic of discussion, like how to lower unemployment and improve the economy, or how to handle the threat of sequestration, or a post - GWOT military. Yet turn on any political program and this is all we hear about. And people wonder why moderates no longer seem to have a place in our system...

Yup, and I think that it's because people have come to value victory more than accomplsihment.  Was it always that way?  Hard to tell, but I think the combination of both sides have played out the limitations of their most dogmatic presumptions about how to fix things, and their inability to offer creative alternatives, they don't want to focus on that.


Some of that could be improved if the voting public actually rewarded those politicians who didn't play politics as usual, but however much we bemoan it, most of us like it well enough to keep rewarding those who do.  So yes, I blame the politicans, but I also balme the electorate.

The birthers wanted to overturn the election of a US President. And if their allegations against Obama were true, that would make Obama a criminal. I don’t see Harry Reid’s statements in the same league. If Reid is lying, his actions are outrageous. If he really does have a “source” that made this statement to him about Romney’s taxes, how is that any different from a reporter protecting a source? I think its a fair comparison. And by the way it is very easy for Romney to disprove Reid’s allegation. By not releasing more tax returns, Romney is keeping this story alive.

That is the logic which governed the dunking of witches in colonial Mass.  Now I apreciate that Gov. Romney is from Mass, but is that really the way you want to do business? Hope not!

I totally disagree with you. If Romney has paid his taxes or paid so little as not to count as paying taxes, then he has a real problem. The fact that he won't open up is tax returns speaks for itself. When the birthers questioned (and still question) Obama's birth certificate, he called on Hawaii to release it. I think Reid is right and I support him on this. You, sir, are always so wishy-washy on your answers. At least Reid is speaking for a lot of us on this issue.

For what "lot" is he speaking?  A bunch of angry classists who wallow in rage? 


What does it mean to pay "so little (in taxes) as not to count"?  We may agree about the need for tax reform, but the law decides what counts, and if we don't like the law, we should work hard to change it.


I am not wishy-washy, as I hope this atypically harsh repsonse which you invitedm indicates.  I am simply more committed to decency than sanctimony, and to the law than to me personal opinions. 

Well, the time is at hand, and even though I don't like to end on a roguh note, we must do so.


Actually, if one looks at the record of this conversation, there is reason for hope.  Self-identified liberals and conservative, Romney supporters and Obama supporters, all weighed in, and did so with civility and wisdom.  Share this record and see if we can't bring more of both to this election cycle.


Don't forget to find me on facebook and follow me on twitter.


'Til next week,


In This Chat
Brad Hirschfield
Rabbi Brad Hirschfield is an author, radio and TV talk show host, and President of CLAL-The National Jewish Center for Learning and Leadership. His On Faith blog, For God's Sake, explores the uses and abuses of religion in politics and pop culture. He wrote "You Don't Have To Be Wrong For Me To Be Right: Finding Faith Without Fanaticism." Named as one of the nation's 50 most influential rabbis in Newsweek, and one of the top 30 "Preachers and Teachers" by, he is the creator of the popular series, Building Bridges, airing on Bridges TV, and co-host of the weekly radio show, Hirschfield and Kula: Intelligent Talk Radio. For more information see
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