A strict definition of the phrase is "Trickery or deception, often in a political context"
The phrase however has its origins in Magic. A conjurer on the stage attempting to fool the audience into believing his "trick" would use smoke and mirrors. This would deceive the eye of the beholder and enable the magician to fool the audience. A bit like all politicians around the word do at times.The "trick" would truly appear to be Magic.
In more recent times this phrase has been used to describe politics and, as it is so often called these days, political spin, plus conflicts and war. Whilst this is now common practise it does make it hard to know just what to beleive. Reading a good cross section of reports can help but that is time consuming. Even then so often views are subjective rather than objective.
Into the pot we also need to add the fact that these days foreign agents often infiltrate countries and organisations in order to manipulate what is happening. More smoke and mirrors. A prime example of smoke and mirrors right now is the 2012 US election and possibly Syria. Not that the UK is a stranger to this. Political leaders these days employ spin doctors to weave a web of whatever. Some would say a web of deceit. After all a clear, honest manifesto would be more appropriate but would it prove as useful?
American journalist Jimmy Breslin is generally attirbuted with the modern usage of the phrase. In his "Notes from Impeachment Summer" in 1975 he wrote,
"All political power is primarily an illusion... Mirrors and blue smoke, beautiful blue smoke rolling over the surface of highly polished mirrors... If somebody tells you how to look, there can be seen in the smoke great, magnificent shapes, castles and kingdoms, and maybe they can be yours." "The ability to create the illusion of power, to use mirrors and blue smoke, is one found in unusual people." Since then the phrase has been adopted by many.
Today, February 4, 2012, the people of Nevada will vote for their GOP preferred candidate. For many of them they will make their choice based on smoke and mirrors. It will have been the hype and the televised debates which will have had an impact. In truth none of this will enable the voter to know what sort of GOP leader or President the men will make. It does not show a clear manifesto of their believes. It is in effect all smoke and mirrors.