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When lying is 'a business plan'

Mitt and Ann Romney sat down with ABC's Diane Sawyer yesterday for a wide-ranging interview, but what stood out for me was the presumptive Republican nominee arguing, "92%, 93% of the jobs lost have been lost by women during this president's term."

As a simple matter of reality, Romney's lying. He knows he's lying. Everyone, including Fox News, realizes he's lying.

But Romney said it anyway, in part because he assumed Sawyer wouldn't call him on it (she didn't), and in part because he simply doesn't care -- Romney's running for office, for Pete's sake, and can't be bothered to worry about telling Americans the truth.

The problem comes when Romney develops a reputation as someone who simply cannot be trusted to be honest with the public. Consider, for example, Richard Cohen's new column, which says, "I admire a smooth liar, and Romney is among the best."

A marathon of debates and an eon of campaigning have toughened and honed Romney. He commands the heights of great assurance, and he knows, as some of us learn too late in life, that the truth is not always a moral obligation but sometimes merely what works.

He often cites his business background as commending him for the presidency. That's his forgivable absurdity. Instead, what his career has given him is the businessman's concept of self -- that what he does is not who he is. This is what enables the slumlord to be a charitable man. This is what enables the corporate raider to endow his university. Business is business. It's what you do. It is not who you are. Lying isn't a sin. It's a business plan.

That's a good line, but what matters more to me than Cohen's argument is the column's existence -- Romney's unnerving dishonesty is starting to get noticed in ways that had gone largely overlooked. Concerns are, in other words, going mainstream. Dana Milbank did a column on this recently, and now Cohen's on the case.

As I argued a week ago, this matters. This is about the point in a presidential campaign at which media "narratives" start to stick. Romney can live with mockery of his out-of-touch patrician elitism; he can tolerate talk of his role in orchestrating mass layoffs; he embraces his lack of leadership experience; and he's confident he can overcome talk of his flip-flopping.

But if political observers start to see Romney as a man who frequently lies to advance his ambitions, it's a character flaw that's awfully tough to live down.

As Rachel recently explained, "Some dishonesty in national American politics is frankly routine. It's too bad, but it's true. Romney-style dishonesty is a sight to behold. It's different. He's bending the curve."