Did Paul Ryan bend the truth? And does it matter?

August 30, 2012

TAMPA -- Republicans have accused President Obama of trading in his message of hope and change for Chicago-style politics.

But their own new vice presidential pick also took a step down from the political high road on Wednesday night, or at least exposed himself to criticism of playing fast and loose with the facts.

Rep. Paul Ryan’s speech at the Republican National Convention, while well-received by delegates and pundits, has drawn plenty of criticism from fact-checkers for its claims on three matters: the closing of a GM plant in Ryan’s district, Obama’s Medicare proposal and the Simpson-Bowles debt commission report.

And interest in the controversy is catching on. As of this posting, "Janesville GM" is a top search term on Twitter and #LyinRyan is one of the top-trending hashtags, as is a competing hashtag poking fun at fact-checkers, #EastwoodFactCheck.

There is clearly a debate roiling over the veracity of Ryan's speech and the fact-checkers' response to it.

Here’s the basic rundown (and for more detail, check out Glenn Kessler's post from this morning):

1. Ryan appeared to suggest that Obama was to blame for the closing of the GM plant in Janesville, Wis., saying: “Obama said: ‘I believe that if our government is there to support you … this plant will be here for another hundred years.’ That’s what he said in 2008. Well, as it turned out, that plant didn’t last another year. It is locked up and empty to this day.” But the closure of the plan was announced in mid-2008, when President George W. Bush was still in office and before Obama assumed the presidency, and the plant was mostly shuttered by the end 2008.

2. Ryan took aim at Obama’s Medicare proposal: “They needed hundreds of billions more [for Obamacare]. So, they just took it all away from Medicare, $716 billion dollars funneled out of Medicare by President Obama.” Left unsaid: Ryan’s own budget made basically the same cuts to Medicare. Since being chosen as Mitt Romney’s running mate, Ryan has embraced the GOP presidential nominee's plan to restore those cuts. But he still favored them at one point – enough to put them in his own budget.

3. Ryan criticized Obama for assembling the Simpson-Bowles debt commission and then declining to act on the panel's final report: “He created a bipartisan debt commission. They came back with an urgent report. He thanked them, sent them on their way, and then did exactly nothing.” Left unsaid here: Ryan himself served on the debt commission and voted against its suggestions. And by doing so, the House Budget Committee chairman helped kill the proposal, given the clout he has with his party on such matters.

Fact-checkers are basically unanimous that all three of these claims either stretch the truth or are flat-out false.

The question is: Does this become a political problem for Ryan?

All of these are pretty run-of-the-mill political tricks. Ryan is omitting key facts and nudging voters to connect dots that he, himself, (and the facts) don’t connect.

Ryan doesn’t explicitly blame Obama for the closing of the GM plant, but it’s clearly suggested. His claim about Medicare is technically accurate, even as it ignores a very important fact. And, similarly, Ryan totally ignores his own role in the Simpson-Bowles proposal’s demise while hitting Obama for it.

In each case, though, Republicans have left themselves wiggle room.

“He didn't talk about Obama closing the plant,” top Romney adviser Eric Fehrnstrom said on CNN this morning – a statement that is technically true. Romney’s team argues that Ryan was saying more about Obama’s failure to reopen the plant, which Obama has pledged to do and which Ryan mentioned in his speech ("It is locked up and empty to this day"). But anybody who watched the speech would be left with the impression that it closed under Obama.

On Simpson-Bowles, Fehrnstrom said: “There's an obligation on the part of people in Congress, if they reject Simpson-Bowles, to talk about what they will put in its place. Paul Ryan did that.”

Ryan's defense here is more plausible. Ryan was criticizing Obama for not acting on a proposal that Ryan himself opposed, but he was also clearly hitting Obama more broadly as lacking leadership on the issue of the debt.

The risk for Republicans in all this is if the focus of Ryan’s speech shifts from its delivery to its context.

Fact-checkers do play a key role in the political media because their conclusions have a way of becoming part of the conventional wisdom. Look at the Priorities USA ad featuring Joe Soptic. Fact-checkers were the first to decry it, and now many reporters are simply describing that ad as “false” and grilling the Obama campaign and White House officials about it.

If Ryan becomes known for bending the truth, it could color the generally positive views of his character. The fact is that Ryan has presented himself as a teller of tough political truths, and fact-checkers' verdicts on his speech Wednesday night could undercut that image.

Romney adviser John Sununu told The Fix on Thursday that fact-checkers' verdicts can throw the campaign off its message.

"Oh, yeah, because I personally believe they are so biased anyway," Sununu said.

The lines from Ryan’s speech don’t strike us as being quite so egregious as the Soptic ad – in that they don’t involve accusing someone of essentially killing somebody. But they do have the potential to cause advisers like Fehrnstrom and Sununu to answer some tough questions on TV and in the press, in much the same way the Soptic ad has put the Obama team in a tough spot.

Both campaigns have been accused – and rightly so – of being untruthful at times. Which campaign has been the worse offender is in the eye of the beholder, but neither side is taking the high road.

From there, it’s definitely worth parsing which claims are more or less accurate than others. The prevailing picture for most undecided American voters will simply be: They’re both liars.

It's interesting that the media -- even non-fact-checkers -- now seem emboldened to fact-check these claims. Speeches like Ryan's didn't used to be parsed for the facts as closely as they are today.

At least for now, though, the fact-checkers' microscopes don't appear to be giving the campaigns much pause when it comes to making more truth-stretching claims.

Read more from PostPolitics

Fact-checking Paul Ryan's RNC speech

RNC Night Two: Winners and losers

Mitt Romney to deliver the speech of his life

The Grid: Full coverage of the GOP convention

Aaron Blake covers national politics and writes regularly for The Fix.
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Chris Cillizza · August 30, 2012