A not-very-truthful speech in a not-very-truthful campaign

August 30, 2012

Honestly? I didn't want us to write this piece.

The original pitch was for "the five biggest lies in Paul Ryan's speech." I said no. It's not that the speech didn't include some lies. It's that I wanted us to bend over backward to be fair, to see it from Ryan's perspective, to highlight its best arguments as well as its worst. So I suggested an alternative: The true, the false, and the misleading in Ryan's speech. (Note here that we're talking about political claims, not personal ones. Ryan's biography isn't what we're examining here though, for the record, I found his story deeply moving.)

An hour later, the draft came in -- Dylan Matthews is a very fast writer. There was one item in the "true" section.


Jason E. Miczek - AP

So at about 1 a.m. Thursday, having read Ryan's speech in an advance text and having watched it on television, I sat down to read it again, this time with the explicit purpose of finding claims we could add to the "true" category. And I did find one. He was right to say that the Obama administration has been unable to correct the housing crisis, though the force of that criticism is somewhat blunted by the fact that neither Ryan nor Mitt Romney have proposed an alternative housing policy. But I also came up with two more "false" claims. So I read the speech again. And I simply couldn't find any other major claims or criticisms that were true.

I want to stop here and say that even the definition of "true" that we're using is loose. "Legitimate" might be a better word. The search wasn't for arguments that were ironclad. It was just for arguments -- for claims about Obama's record -- that were based on a reasonable reading of the facts, and that weren't missing obviously key context.

For instance: Obama really has expanded the size and generosity of the food stamps program. He really has been picking winners and losers in the energy sector. He really does intend to raise taxes on the rich. He really does foresee the federal government spending more a decade from now than it was spending five years ago. He really did push an unelected board of health-care bureaucrats to make decisions about Medicare reimbursement rates. He really did want to raise the price of dirty energy. He really hasn't released a plan that would ever balance the budget. He really did break his pledge not to raise taxes on people making less than $250,000 when he signed the Affordable Care Act.

But Ryan's claims weren't even arguably true. You simply can't say the president hasn't released a deficit reduction plan. The plan is right here. You simply can't say the president broke his promise to keep your GM plant open. The decision to close the plant was made before he entered office -- and, by the way, the guy at the top of your ticket opposed the auto bailout. You simply can't argue that the Affordable Care Act was a government takeover of the health-care system. My doctor still works for Kaiser Permanente, a private company that the government does not own. You simply can't say that Obama, who was willing to follow historical precedent and sign a clean debt ceiling increase, caused the S&P downgrade, when S&P clearly said it was due to congressional gridlock and even wrote that it was partly due to the GOP's dogmatic position on taxes.

Oh, and here's one we missed: "You would think that any president, whatever his party, would make job creation, and nothing else, his first order of economic business. But this president didn’t do that. Instead, we got a long, divisive, all-or-nothing attempt to put the federal government in charge of health care." The stimulus -- which was the administration's major job creation package -- came before health care. It was their first priority. That's simply inarguable.

After rereading Ryan's speech, I went back to Sarah Palin's 2008 convention address. Perhaps, I thought, this is how these speeches always are. But Palin's criticisms, agree or disagree, held up. "This is a man who has authored two memoirs but not a single major law or reform — not even in the state Senate." True. She accused Obama of wanting to "make government bigger" and of intending to "take more of your money." That's not how the Obama campaign would have explained its intentions, but the facts are the facts, and they did have plans to grow the size of government and raise more in tax revenues. Palin said that "terrorist states are seeking nuclear weapons without delay" and "he wants to meet them without preconditions," which was true enough.

This has been a central challenge during this election. The Republican ticket, when it comes to talking about matters of policy and substance, has some real problems -- problems that have nothing to do with whether you like their ideas. Romney admits that his tax plan "can't be scored" and then he rejects independent analyses showing that his numbers don't add up. He says -- and Ryan echoes -- that he'll bring federal spending down to 20 percent of GDP but refuses to outline a path for how well get there. He mounts a massive ad assault based on a completely discredited lie about the Obama administration's welfare policy. He releases white papers quoting economists who don't agree with the Romney campaign's interpretations of their research.

All this is true irrespective of your beliefs as to what is good and bad policy, or which ticket you prefer. Quite simply, the Romney campaign isn't adhering to the minimum standards required for a real policy conversation. Even if you bend over backward to be generous to them -- as the Tax Policy Center did when they granted the Romney campaign a slew of essentially impossible premises in order to evaluate their tax plan -- you often find yourself forced into the same conclusion: This doesn't add up, this doesn't have enough details to be evaluated, or this isn't true.

I don't like that conclusion. It doesn't look "fair" when you say that. We've been conditioned to want to give both sides relatively equal praise and blame, and the fact of the matter is, I would like to give both sides relatively equal praise and blame. I'd personally feel better if our coverage didn't look so lopsided. But first the campaigns have to be relatively equal. So far in this campaign, you can look fair, or you can be fair, but you can't be both.

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Dylan Matthews · August 30, 2012