“Our Navy is smaller now than at any time since 1917.”
— Mitt Romney, in a new television ad
“The president began an apology tour of going to various nations and criticizing America.”
Mitt Romney, in another new television ad
When readers ask whether we get annoyed that politicians often ignore fact-checking criticism, our answer is always the same: We write for voters, not politicians. Politicians are not going to change their behavior unless voters begin to make choices based on adherence to the truth.
But this is an interesting case in which Mitt Romney has taken two moments from the third presidential debate — both of which were faulted by fact checkers — and turned them into television ads.
In both cases, Romney also misspoke, making his statements even less accurate. The campaign commercial for the “apology tour” selectively snips out Romney’s errors, but apparently it was impossible to clean up Romney’s error on the size of the Navy.
When Romney talks about the size of the Navy, he generally uses the year 1916. But in the last debate, he used “1917.” (You can tell that Obama’s response was precooked because Obama actually refers to the year 1916.)
The change from 1916 to 1917 makes a difference, factually. In 1916, President Woodrow Wilson signed into law the Naval Act of 1916, which put the United States on a crash course to build a world-class Navy. The United States also entered World War I in 1917. So the numbers shifted dramatically, from 245 ships in 1916 to 342 ships in 1917 (and then 774 ships in 1918).
Using the 342 figure as our low point, it turns out that the number of naval ships was lower than that many times since 1917 — including for seven years in the 1930s and then every year since 2000.
Moreover, as we noted before — and Obama echoed in the debate — the makeup of the Navy was so different that it’s really a case of apples and oranges, or rather, comparing gunboats to aircraft carriers. As the current Secretary of the Navy, Ray Mabus, put it earlier this year: “It’s like comparing the telegraph to the smart phone. They’re just not comparable.”
The Romney campaign defends the statement, both in a blog post by former secretary of the Navy John Lehman and in a telephone interview with a top campaign staff member.
In the blog post, Lehman acknowledged that “modern networks and precision guided munitions give today’s fleet far more combat punch over greater distances than the WWI fleet” but said that fleet counts are still important:
“We reject this approach for one very important reason. That is, navies do more than fight wars. They must of course be prepared to fight and win, and our fleet will do that with certainty. But the fleet must do much more than just fight. The presence of a powerful fleet causes potential adversaries to think twice about aggression, while assuring friends and allies of our commitment to our interests and to their security. Put simply, what provides this deterrence and assurance is the visible presence of surface warships and embarked air wings, and the inferred presence of stealthy submarines. In this pursuit, numbers matter more than weapons and networks, and the Obama administration has failed to recognize this.”
The campaign staff member said it was important to focus on the fact that the fleet count has been static for more than a decade and that there is a bipartisan consensus that it needs to grow. (The Obama administration’s stated goal is 300 ships.) He acknowledged that “our Navy is bigger and more capable than other navies,” but “we have greater responsibilities.”
Those are certainly valid points, but we question why Romney would continue to seize on such a strange factoid — and the campaign would feature it in an ad — especially after we gave the claim Three Pinocchios, PolitiFact called it “Pants on Fire” and FactCheck.Org said it was “not true.”
Romney would have been more accurate to have said “the size of the Navy has remained static for more than decade while the threats and responsibilities have grown.” The reference to 1917 is simply straining.
The ad also asserts that Obama defense cuts total $1 trillion. As we have noted before, this includes some $500 billion in automatic defense cuts that were the product of a bipartisan agreement —neither party wants those to take place.
We first awarded this claim Four Pinocchios back in early 2011, and readers are welcome to read the full column. Essentially, we concluded that Obama’s so-called apologies were often taken out of context. PolitiFact also said this was a “Pants on Fire” claim and FactCheck.Org also concluded “the claim doesn’t hold up when matched with Obama’s actual words.”
We realize some readers strongly disagree, including one of our colleagues, Jennifer Rubin. She offered a defense of the claim on her blog “Right Turn” earlier this week.
In any case, as we noted in our fact check of the third debate, Romney bungled his rebuttal of Obama’s assertion that this was “the biggest whopper” of the campaign. Romney claimed that Obama had made his offending comments during trips to the Middle East and on Arabic television—which was not correct.
The speeches Romney referenced actually were made in France and Latin America. (Obama did use the word “dictating” during a 2009 interview with al Arabiya, but again, that was not an apology; he said he wanted his new Middle East peace envoy to “start by listening.”)
How did the Romney campaign respond to this problem?
It selectively edited Romney’s statements — much as both campaigns have done with their opponent’s words. (A Romney spokesman declined to comment on why the excisions were made.)
Here are the relevant quotes, with the words that have been removed in bold type:
“ And then the president began what I’ve called an apology tour of going to various nations in the Middle East and criticizing America. I think they looked at that and saw weakness.”
“Mr. President , the reason I call it an apology tour is because you went to the Middle East and you flew to Egypt and to Saudi Arabia and to Turkey and Iraq. And, by the way, you skipped Israel, our closest friend in the region. But you went to the other nations. And by the way, they noticed that you skipped Israel. And then in those nations and on Arabic TV you said that America had been dismissive and derisive. You said that on occasion America had dictated to other nations. Mr. President, America has not dictated to other nations. We have freed other nations from dictators.”
Pretty clever, right? The net effect is to suggest Obama made those supposed apologies to Arabs, without actually saying so, because that would be incorrect. But even careful editing still does not fix the basic problem in the first place — there was no apology tour.
This ad also repeats the criticism that Obama has never visited Israel. As we have noted, only four of the last 11 presidents visited Israel during their presidency — and only two visited in their first term.
The Pinocchio Test
For doubling down on claims that have been repeatedly called out by fact checkers, even to the point of editing out the candidate’s misstatements, the Romney campaign earns Four Pinocchios.
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