It’s hard to imagine a more unpopular policy proposal in Montana than the imposition of a sales tax. Voters have repeatedly rejected the regressive tax, and it would be political disaster to propose one before a gubernatorial campaign. And, so, like candidate after candidate, Greg Gianforte announced that he would not propose a sales tax as part of his plan for Montana.
Smart politics, but hardly consistent with his previous views. As I first reported back in May, Gianforte not only previously advocated a sales tax, but called for imposing one specifically for the purpose of reducing taxes on the very wealthy like himself. In September, the Montana Democratic Party released audio of Gianforte calling a sales tax an “ideal solution.” Gianforte has never explained why his view shifted once he became a candidate other than the obvious reason that changing his public position makes him more electable.
And Democrats seized on the issue, as it highlights both Mr. Gianforte’s inconsistency on the issue and suggests a willingness to say one thing for political gain while planning to do another once elected. Given that Mr. Gianforte, who has privately and financially expressed strong views about issues ranging from right to work to a woman’s right to healthcare while refusing to answer any specifics for his plans as a candidate, it’s a legitimate concern.
But the press in Montana, including editorialists at the Billing Gazette and the right-wing propagandists at the Daily Interlake, decided to simply take Gianforte at his word that he no longer supported a sales tax, even though he’s never explained why he changed his position, never explained why it’s not now an “ideal solution,” and even thought he asserted in 2002 that the main obstacle to a sales tax was a political one.
The Gazette took Gianforte at his word, though, not demanding any of these explanations. They went so far as to write an editorial stinging the Bullock campaign for daring to raise the issue. In part, they wrote:
While it is true that Gianforte did testify that he favored a state sales tax in place of two other state taxes, he has repeatedly said he does not favor sales taxes now.
That seemed awfully naïve when they wrote it—and it seems downright foolish now, because, perhaps emboldened by the kid gloves treatment he got from the press, Gianforte is now offering an unmitigated falsehood on the issue, claiming that he has never supported a sales tax. From a recent Gianforte fundraising e-mail:
Think what you will about Greg Gianforte, but that’s a bald-faced lie, with recordings, contemporary press accounts, and the minutes of legislative hearings showing that Gianforte not only supported a sales tax, but aggressively advocated for one.
And the Billings Gazette has remained silent, not retracting its earlier, repetitive and credulous editorial, nor writing a new one condemning Gianforte for lying to Montanans. There’s been no news story on this issue that is very important to Montanans and so it seems, as we increasingly enter the post-fact world of politics in Montana, a candidate can simply say whatever he wants, whenever he wants without any worry that his claims will be fact-checked or challenged by the press.
It’s terrifying to think about what this means for the future of politics in our state. Candidates, like all people, shade the truth to their benefit, and always have. It’s entirely new, however, to imagine a world in which candidates can, without fear, serve up statements that are objectively false, knowing that the press won’t offer a critical eye on those claims. Hell, candidates might now even get editorial boards to defend those lies.
The Gianforte campaign offers a peek into this future. We’ve got a candidate who’s misrepresented the truth about Colstrip, Syrian refugees, Facebook, endorsements, sales taxes and more. Even worse, perhaps, he’s pretended that he doesn’t have specific policy proposals he’ll support if elected that will gut our public schools, impose economically devastating and immoral discrimination, and wreak havoc on workers across the state.
The purpose of the press is not to repeat press statements of candidates, but to compare those statements with earlier views and square them with objective reality. When they refuse to do that, what kind of campaigns can we expect in the future? Campaigns that look a lot like the one from this dishonest millionaire trying to buy the race. And that’s not a future any of us should want.