Mitt Romney spoke to supporters in the Ohio town of Defiance last week, but his words came from the twin cities of Duplicity and Deception.
"I saw a story today that one of the great manufacturers in this state, Jeep, now owned by the Italians, is thinking of moving all production to China," the Republican presidential nominee proclaimed, referring to the automaker President Obama saved from dissolution with taxpayer funds. "I will fight for every good job in America."
The truth, however, was roughly 180 degrees opposite Romney's claim. Chrysler, which owns the Jeep label, has added about 7,000 jobs in North America since it emerged from bankruptcy proceedings in June 2009, and it continues to expand its U.S. workforce and to invest hundreds of millions of dollars in American plants.
Romney's fiction was apparently based on a misreading of a Bloomberg News report a few days earlier, which said that Chrysler would resume production in China for the first time since parent Fiat SpA bought the company — in addition to Chrysler's production in Michigan, Illinois and Ohio.
"Let's set the record straight: Jeep has no intention of shifting production of its Jeep models out of North America to China," Chrysler executive Gualberto Ranieri wrote in a statement, using italics for emphasis. "A careful and unbiased reading of the Bloomberg take would have saved unnecessary fantasies and extravagant comments." Ranieri said the conclusion that it was moving all production to China was "a leap that would be difficult even for professional circus acrobats."
But in the game of trickery, Romney is exceedingly dexterous. A couple of days later, his campaign came out with an ad in Ohio repeating the allegation in a way that tweaked the wording to make it technically true, while continuing to give the same false impression: "Obama took GM and Chrysler into bankruptcy and sold Chrysler to Italians who are going to build Jeeps in China. Mitt Romney will fight for every American job."
Romney's ongoing deception led Chrysler's CEO to send a letter Tuesday to the company's jittery employees, assuring them that "Jeep production will not be moved from the United States" and that "It is inaccurate to suggest anything different." The restored production in China was to avoid huge tariffs on vehicles imported into China.
The fast-and-loose with Jeep points to a troubling Romney instinct: When the stakes are high, as they are for him in must-win Ohio, the truth often is the first casualty.
It's difficult to quantify a candidate's relationship with the facts, but The Washington Post's fact-checker, Glenn Kessler, has calculated that, for much of the campaign, Romney and Obama were roughly even in their prevarications until the past few months.
Back in May, Romney's average "Pinocchio" rating from Kessler was 1.97 on a scale of 0 to 4. Obama was at 1.91. Now, Obama is at 2.11 and Romney is at 2.40 — putting him at the level of hogwash perpetrated during the primaries by Rick Perry (2.41) and Newt Gingrich (2.44).
This doesn't excuse Obama. The president's own truthfulness has been tortured, notably his claim that 90 percent of the deficit came from George W. Bush and his assertion that Congress "proposed" the budget sequester, not him. In a normal campaign, Obama's whoppers might be the story — but in this case, Romney is in a whole new category.
Recently, I wrote about Romney's continued claim that he has a plan to create 12 million jobs even though the studies his campaign furnished to support the claim do not in fact do so. With the Jeep attack, even the Romney campaign seems to be abashed: It began airing the ad in Ohio over the weekend without following the usual procedure of announcing the ad's release. Apparently the campaign was hoping that people who knew better wouldn't notice. But this is the year of the fact-checkers, and Romney's ad earned a quick challenge.
A Romney adviser said this summer that "we're not going to let our campaign be dictated by fact-checkers" — and on Tuesday, they proved it. The Post's Greg Sargent reported that the campaign had bought radio time for another ad in Toledo, just up the road from Defiance, where the Chrysler plant is located.
By making Jeeps in China, the ad alleged, Chrysler was breaking "the promises made to autoworkers in Toledo ... the same hard-working men and women who were told that Obama's auto bailout would help them."
When it comes to the truth, Romney still lives in Defiance.
Dana Milbank is a Washington Post columnist. Email him at email@example.com.