The Obama campaign seems to have made a conscious choice lately to tell the truth about lying. When Sen. McCain, or one of his proxies, has lied about one of Sen. Obama’s positions, Sen. Obama himself (here), or one of his staffers (see above), says as much. And not with the usual hemming and hawing, the ever-so-carefully-couched-so-as-not-to-hurt-anyone’s-feelings rhetoric that we’ve all grown used to: “Well, if you look at the facts, they support our side of the story and not their contentions.” Nope, the Obama campaign appears to be saying that there are no stories, no contentions, just what’s true and what isn’t. It’s very pre-post-modern.

There are lots of ways to think about this strategy, if that’s what it actually is. For instance, there are the epistemological implications. About which, truth be told, I have very little to say (Neddy? Dana? Thoughts?). Other than, I suppose, that I’m cautiously optimistic that honesty, even about dishonesty, will elevate our political discourse by making it easier for knowledge to travel throughout the public sphere.

Meanwhile, I’m more interested in the historical precedents and the politics. On the former issue, I don’t think Eric Alterman’s book on presidential deception deals with accusations of lying during campaigns. So, absent a reliable source, I have to rely on my memory. And I’m drawing a blank. Come to think of it, the most telling example I can recall is of a candidate NOT calling his opponent a liar: during the 2004 vice presidential debate, when Dick Cheney claimed, falsely, that he had never met John Edwards in the Senate. Edwards, for some reason, didn’t reply by turning to the cameras and saying: “Vice President Cheney is lying. Like he lied about Iraq.” (I’m willing to admit that such a statement probably would not have worked out well for the Kerry campaign. But it would have made me feel better.)

As for the politics, I’m hopeful that the Obama campaign’s strategy is a good one. The time-tested reality is that Democratic decorum in the face of Republican untruths will be met with more spurious attacks. And the fair-and-balanced press, in recent years at least, hasn’t been much help. As a result, there have been very few consequences for lying about an opponent during a presidential campaign. At the same time, Sen. Obama himself has been careful thus far — as, I think, have his staffers — not to call Sen. McCain a liar. Instead, they’ve accused Sen. McCain, his campaign staff, and his surrogates of lying. As we’ve talked about here recently, this is an important distinction: between what a person does and what they are.

In the end, we’ll see how far Sen. Obama is willing to go with all this truth-telling. I have little doubt that Sen. McCain will stand on stage during the debates and lie about Sen. Obama’s positions. Will Sen. Obama then turn to the cameras and call him on it? That’s probably too much to ask. But one can hope — audaciously.

Update: Someone who actually knows something weighs in on this issue.