The once-negligible GOP candidate has turned anti-abortion anger into polling gold. But keeping reality at bay past the primaries may prove impossible.
Like many people watching the last GOP presidential debate, I couldn’t help but be impressed when former Hewlett Packard CEO Carly Fiorina calmly and icily put Donald Trump in his place as he tried to mend fences over his remarks about her physical appearance. My enthusiasm quickly drained, however, when 30 minutes later she segued into her lie that the now infamous secretly recorded Planned Parenthood videos obtained and edited by anti-abortion activists included a scene with “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.’”
It has been almost two weeks since the Big Lie, and Fiorina’s polling numbers have never been higher. Once so far off the radar that she was consigned to the “kids table” during presidential debates, she’s now in the top four when it comes to popularity with overall primary voters according to the Wall Street Journal, and has become the first or second choice candidate for 28 percent of those polled. She’s also at the top of USA Today’s presidential candidate power rankings, with most of their pundits agreeing that “Fiorina is rising and Trump [is] appearing to fade.”
Fiorina’s campaign is doing better than ever before. And even as nearly every fact-checker in the media repeatedly reports that Fiorina’s claims about the video were at best a willful mischaracterization and at worst a blatant lie, Fiorina continues to claim she’s telling the God’s honest truth.
“There is no evidence that the scene you described exists,” Meet the Press’s Chuck Todd said, confronting the candidate in a talk show sit down this weekend. “Are you willing now to concede that you exaggerated that scene?”
“No, not at all,” answered Fiorina. “That scene absolutely does exist. And that voice saying what I said they were saying, ‘We’re going to keep it alive to harvest its brain,’ exists as well.’”
If there were a Venn diagram with “People who don’t believe what they see on the news” in one circle and “People who think the best president would be someone with no political experience whatsoever” in the other, you can be sure that the overlap would be a large one—and that it would probably be occupied by Fiorina fans. The fact that her affiliated PAC actually created its own version of the alleged video in order to further manipulate voters into believing that she is telling the truth shows they intend to continue repeating the lie. Their hope? If they say it frequently enough, voters will simply have to believe it.
“This is an extraordinary moment in the annals of political deception,” writes Dahlia Lithwick at Slate. “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 … 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?”
Fiorina continues to brush off any media attempts to make her confront her fantasy about Planned Parenthood and its abortion practices, a sign of exactly how entwined her presidential campaign has become with the political war on Planned Parenthood. When the first videos were released in July, she immediately pounced upon them and turned them into an attack on Democratic frontrunner and former secretary of State Hillary Clinton. She continued to coordinate with anti-abortion political groups to get media coverage for their ongoing campaign as the defunding battle continued. It was only once Planned Parenthood became a hot political topic—and that defunding them became a litmus test for the GOP—that Fiorina began to get any traction in the presidential race at all.
That fact is unlikely to have gone unnoticed by her political advisers.
At this point it is clear that Fiorina’s master plan is to ride the Planned Parenthood controversy straight to a nomination— or, even better, if she can, the White House itself. And ironically, thanks to tea-party intervention, this could now actually be a possibility. Now that the far-right faction of the congressional GOP has agreed to exchange Speaker of the House John Boehner’s resignation for a clean continuing resolution on the federal budget, the threat of a government shutdown if the new budget funds Planned Parenthood has been defused. While that is good news for those who would like to keep the federal government operational, that means that those opposing the reproductive-health-care provider have another three months to campaign on this issue and fire up their base before Congress hits another fiscal cliff.
That next crisis point, coincidentally, comes right before the presidential primaries commence.
Fiorina may be able to woo a number of conservative voters to her side with her attacks on Planned Parenthood—whether they are real life or simply the stuff of right-wing fever dreams—but everyday voters are unlikely to be so easily manipulated. A massive 60 percent of Americans still believe that Planned Parenthood should be funded, putting Fiorina and her compatriots solidly in the minority. It’s a number that remains steady no matter how many videos have been released and how many presidential candidates have campaigned in favor of a funding ban.
Meanwhile, Fiorina herself is starting to face her own blowback for her anti-Planned Parenthood campaign. While in Iowa campaigning at a college football game, Fiorina was confronted by Planned Parenthood activists and supporters, one of whom was dressed like a packet of birth-control pills, who chanted “Play off sides, it’s no surprise, Carly fumbles for these Hawkeyes.” A few condoms thrown into the crowd around the candidate may be the first sign that reproductive-rights supporters are done letting Fiorina’s version of reality go unchallenged.
Riding conservative anti-Planned Parenthood sentiment to a primary win may be Carly Fiorina’s campaign strategy, but it is one that will be difficult to maintain heading into November. In a general election, voters are far more likely to support federal funding for birth-control access. They are also far more likely to oppose candidates who blatantly lie to them, especially when those politicians are repeatedly confronted with the truth.
It’s not just about the stories. Journalism is also about who is telling them.
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