Carly Fiorina’s Big Lie

Even if you take your facts on some sort of sliding scale, her fibs about Planned Parenthood are appalling.

Carly Fiorina, April 6, 2015, in Washington, D.C.

Photo by Brendan Smialowski/Getty

For reasons I can’t even explain to myself, Carly Fiorina’s big fib at the GOP debate last week truly surprised me. Fiorina claimed a video of a Planned Parenthood clinic showed this: “Watch a fully formed fetus on the table, its heart beating, its legs kicking while someone says, ‘We have to keep it alive to harvest its brain.’ ” 

The enormity of the fabrication surprised me; the fact that nobody had ever seen this extraordinary smoking gun before stunned me; the fact that not one of the journalists moderating the debate followed up on her claim surprised me. The fact that contemporaneous mainstream media reports of the debate—more theater criticism than journalism—failed to fact-check it surprised me. The people who did fact-check it all immediately agreed that it wasn’t true, and yet Fiorina’s word-picture was touted for days as the emotional zenith of the debate. This all surprised me: the notion that journalism and fact-finding are demonstrably unrelated enterprises.

I’m a chump that way.

Watching Fiorina double down and then double down again in the days that followed also surprised me, as did the following exchange with Chris Wallace on Fox News Sunday:

Wallace: Do you acknowledge what every fact-checker has found, that as horrific as that scene is, it was only described on the video by someone who claimed to have seen it? There is no actual footage of the incident that you just mentioned.

Fiorina: No, I don’t accept that at all, I’ve seen the footage. And I find it amazing, actually, that all these supposed fact-checkers in the mainstream media claim this doesn’t exist. They’re trying to attack the authenticity of the videotape.

Indeed, even Fiorina’s super-PAC’s effort to manipulate the grossly manipulated and misleading Center for Medical Progress videos—videos that have been conclusively debunked—with its own YouTube version of the Fiorina claims surprised me. The video uses spliced footage from the Grantham Collection, an unsourced image of a stillborn, and a CMP image of a Pennsylvania woman’s stillborn baby, used without her permission.

Actually, the very meta nature of the enterprise stunned me—trying to doctor doctored videotapes and still failing to produce an image that corresponds to Fiorina’s narrative. It’s truthiness elevated to almost cosmic levels.

Nobody—not even Fiorina’s staunchest defenders—can say that these videos that clearly don’t exist are real. Even one of the most brazen defenders of the imaginary videos, Jonah Goldberg, opens with this concession to the petty, mewling fact-checkers: “[T]hey have a point. The exact scene, exactly as Fiorina describes it, is not on the videos.” (The article could felicitously end there, but Goldberg goes on to defend the statement under the theory that since “[m]ost Americans are morally appalled by late-term abortions,” Fiorina might as well supply them with pretend images to go with their preconceptions.)

Not even the most robust defenders of Fiorina’s defense can say much more than that some of the images grafted onto the sound bite might not be completely false. And yet there is still no word from Fiorina, her campaign, or her super-PAC to indicate that she misspoke, or misremembered, or confused some other video with a video about Planned Parenthood. There seems to be no place in the middle for Fiorina to just put out a statement saying, “Hey, I misspoke. Sorry.”

This is an extraordinary moment in the annals of political deception. No walk-back, no clarification, just a persistent insistence that a video that doesn’t exist and can’t even be manufactured in the underground labs of political deception is really out there but, like the Emperor’s new clothes, only the virtuous can see it. In Fiorina’s world and the world posited by Goldberg, if people want to believe the big lie about the kicking fetus and the brain harvesting badly enough, who are we to tell them it couldn’t have happened?

The other strain of defense of course is deflection: Well, Hillary lied about her emails, and Obama lied about (insert random example here). But of course the whole purpose of Fiorina’s lie is not mere self-aggrandizement or fundraising or even the scoring of cheap rhetorical points. What she is trying to do is to perpetuate a larger lie: that Planned Parenthood is a for-profit baby-murdering racket instead of a provider of health care services to poor and underserved women. As her deputy campaign manager has claimed: “Planned Parenthood doesn’t and can’t deny they are butchering babies and selling their organs. This is about the character of our nation.”

For whatever reason—and despite the fact that polling suggests it would be a mistake—shutting down Planned Parenthood has become the magic cure-all for the far right dreamers: that one thing that would fight off ISIS, repair the economy, and restore the American Dream. Fine. The fact that there is simply no evidence that Planned Parenthood is harvesting fetal tissue for profit and that there is abundant evidence that shuttering Planned Parenthood would actually be disastrous should appear in the calculus somewhere. New reports out of the Congressional Budget Office show that permanently defunding Planned Parenthood would end up increasing government spending by $130 million over the next 10 years.

Even if you refuse to believe that federal dollars don’t fund abortions (they don’t) or that women will lose out on vitally important preventive health care, including cancer, HIV, and pregnancy screenings, if Planned Parenthood shuts down, there is simply no evidence that the group actually does what the CMP videos allege. And there is even less (let’s be generous and call it zero) evidence that Planned Parenthood does what Fiorina alleges. In the absence of evidence, making it up isn’t enough. And when the fabricated evidence doesn’t show what you want it to show, you don’t get to keep saying that it does.

Even if you like to take your facts on some kind of sliding scale, Fiorina’s Big Lie is beyond appalling: She wants to give as much weight to a fabrication she thinks you would like to believe as you would give to the actual health care provided by Planned Parenthood to real women who can’t afford it elsewhere.

We may wish we lived in a world where a candidate could say, “Wow, hey, I misremembered,” and the polity would say, “Respect.” Perhaps we don’t. But we can’t give a candidate a pass for simply fabricating a story and cynically hoping that it resonates enough to eventually feel real; not when actual people will suffer catastrophic health consequences as a result.