Fact checking the GOP Convention’s opening night
“I can tell you Mitt Romney was not handed success. He built it.”
— Ann Romney, Aug. 28, 2012
Can an entire convention be built around a grammatical error?
We wondered about that as we watched the first night of the Republican Convention. From House Speaker John A. Boehner to RNC Chairman Reince Priebus to Ann Romney, speaker after speaker made reference to Obama’s statement that “If you’ve got a business — you didn’t build that. Somebody else made that happen.”
When Ann Romney declared that her husband “was not handed success — he built it,” the delegates even began chanting “We built it” — which in fact was the official theme for the convention on Tuesday. As our former colleague Peter Baker tweeted, “If Obama had a nickel for every time a Republican quoted his “didn’t build it” line, that would take care of the whole national debt problem.”
We originally gave Romney’s use of the phrase Three Pinocchios, a ruling that did not seem to please anyone, with Democrats complaining that Obama’s words were clearly taken out of context and Republicans arguing that even in context, his words exposed a philosophy that was deeply suspicious of — even hostile to — the private sector.
As we have often said, a gaffe can become an effective attack when it reinforces an existing stereotype about a politician. Democrats would have a stronger case for a complaint if they did not also yesterday release two videos that made ample use of gaffes by Romney that reinforced the stereotype of the GOP nominee being an uncaring corporate executive.
For readers who have not read Obama’s remarks in full context, here is the complete quote. It is often truncated in campaign ads
“There are a lot of wealthy, successful Americans who agree with me — because they want to give something back. They know they didn’t — look, if you’ve been successful, you didn’t get there on your own. You didn’t get there on your own. I’m always struck by people who think, well, it must be because I was just so smart. There are a lot of smart people out there. It must be because I worked harder than everybody else. Let me tell you something — there are a whole bunch of hardworking people out there.
“If you were successful, somebody along the line gave you some help. There was a great teacher somewhere in your life. Somebody helped to create this unbelievable American system that we have that allowed you to thrive. Somebody invested in roads and bridges. If you’ve got a business — you didn’t build that. Somebody else made that happen. The Internet didn’t get invented on its own. Government research created the Internet so that all the companies could make money off the Internet. The point is, is that when we succeed, we succeed because of our individual initiative, but also because we do things together.”
As part of our fact-check gaffe series, we also did a video examination of Obama’s words:
The key question is whether “that” refers to “roads and bridges” — as the Obama campaign contends — or to a business. Yes, it’s a bit of a judgment call, but the clincher for us was Obama’s concluding line: “The point is, is that when we succeed, we succeed because of our individual initiative, but also because we do things together.”
Obama appears to be making the unremarkable point that companies and entrepreneurs often benefit in some way from taxpayer support for roads, education and so forth. In other words, he is trying to make the case for higher taxes, and for why he believes the rich should pay more, which as we noted is part of a long Democratic tradition. He just did not put it very eloquently. So we believed Three Pinocchios was a reasonable compromise, given the ungrammatical nature of Obama’s phrasing.
However, in light of the GOP’s repeated misuse of this Obama quote in speech after speech, we feel compelled to increase the Pinocchio rating to Four. (Warning to Democrats: You will get the same scrutiny of out-of-context Romney quotes next week. It’s really a silly thing on which to base a campaign.)
Another misguided assertion on the first night was the Four-Pinocchio claim that President Obama waived the work requirement for welfare. Both former Pennsylvania senator Rick Santorum and former congressman Artur Davis made variations of this claim. As Santorum put it, “This summer he [Obama] showed us once again he believes in government handouts and dependency by waiving the work requirement for welfare. I helped write the welfare reform bill; we made the law crystal clear — no president can waive the work requirement.”
This is a gross simplification of a complex issue. As we wrote in our original column on this issue, the Obama administration certainly appears to have committed a process foul in the way that it said it would consider waivers for worker participation targets, made in response to a request from GOP and Democratic governors. Santorum would be correct to suggest there is something fishy about the administration’s legal reasoning. But one cannot make the rhetorical leap that Santorum does and conclude that this means that Obama believes in government handouts and dependency.
There has been no dispute among fact checkers on this question, with PolitiFact awarding the claim “Pants on Fire” and FactCheck.org also saying it was incorrect. Interestingly, Romney pollster Neal Newhouse dismissed the complaints of fact-checking organizations after a Romney ad executive said that an ad based on this assertion was “our most effective ad.”
“Fact checkers come to this with their own sets of thoughts and beliefs, and we’re not going to let our campaign be dictated by fact checkers,” he told BuzzFeed.
We know readers will forever question our “thoughts and beliefs” — pick a day and we are either tagged as a liberal or conservative, depending on whose ox is being gored that morning. But the Romney campaign would have a stronger case for ignoring fact checkers if it did not repeatedly cite our work in TV advertisements and news releases. See, for instance, this ad:
Meanwhile, this release from last month, “The Obama Campaign’s Top Ten Lies & Exaggerations,” is based almost entirely on citations of fact-checking organizations, including seven of this column, nine of FactCheck.Org and four of PolitiFact.
The Romney campaign may not want to be dictated by fact checkers, but campaign officials certainly like to quote us when it serves their purposes. It was ever thus.
(NOTE TO READERS: All this week, and next, we will keep an ear out for suspect facts uttered at the conventions. We suspect many will be previously debunked claims, as on the RNC’s opening night, but we welcome suggestions for claims to check.)
Check out our candidate Pinocchio Tracker
Track each presidential candidate's campaign ads