The revelation that Rep. Paul Ryan may have casually exaggerated his speed in running a marathon is the lastest sign that he's a pathological liar.
Consider the evidence: The Washington Post awarded a scientifically-determined "four Pinocchios" to a Romney-Ryan campaign ad about welfare; their convention involved skewing and intensifying the meaning of an Obama comment about businesses' dependence on public goods; and the New York Times, in a headline still visible in the URL but subsequently changed, said his speech contained a "litany of falsehoods." (A fuller version of that story is here.)
And indeed, a casual read could mistake this for evidence about Ryan's character. It is, in fact, something approaching the opposite: This is how a bogus political narrative gets built. For reasons that aren't obvious at a moment when policy disagreements on the central questions of taxing and entitlement spending are actually clear, the Democratic Party chose to make its core critique of the Republican National Convention the claim that, as Senator Al Franken once eloquently put it, Republicans are lying liars. Also, as the most-prolific of the fact-checking sites, PolitiFact has it, that their pants are on fire.
The Democrats are hoping to do to Paul Ryan what Republicans so successfully did to Al Gore: To conflate stray real personal exaggerations; rhetorical simplifications; and actual policy differences into an unfair character attack. Ryan (and now Romney) is in fact far more honest than any Republican national figure in memory in his explicit plan to turn Medicare into a less-expensive voucher system and to cut health care spending for poor people deeply. That had been Democrats first, and obvious, point of attack, and is an utterly valid one. Also: Romney and Ryan want to repeal a vast program of expanded health coverage. Obama wants to implement it.
But the attack on his honesty was an Obama Campaign tactic last week, one reporters should be wary of echoing. Let's look at some of the examples. Among the facts being checked are actual policy disagreements, like the welfare ad. That spot may play on voter resentment; it may not appeal to better angels; and it may overhype an actual policy move with the verb "gutted"; but as a Chicago Tribune columnist noted, there is an actual policy disagreement (of long standing) here over the work requirement in welfare, and an actual White House policy move to offer exceptions to it. The Romney ad contains heated rhetoric of the genre of Democratic allegations that Ryan would "end" Medicare — but what's wrong with heated rhetoric? Do the fact checkers now also carry thermometers?
The other "fact" I heard about endlessly on MSNBC Wednesday was the timing of the closure of a Janesville auto plant, which Obama had pledged on the campaign trail to keep open, but which began to close before he was elected. Michael Cooper's summary of this is appropriately nuanced; Ryan was being tendentious, but again, it's hard to see the outrageous lie in this complicated story. And indeed, an aggressive fact checker might also raise an eyebrow at Obama's original comment that appropriate government help could keep the plant open another century.
Other Ryan comments are self-serving in a way that I have never heard a politician avoid: He criticizes Obama for rejecting the debt commission without mention his own (not exactly secret) role in its failure and he talks about deficits without (always) apologizing for his Bush-era votes. Is this required? Obama did not, during 2008, highlight his votes to approve spending for the Iraq war, for instance.
The convention's fixation on Obama's "you didn't build that" line, meanwhile, may have caricatured the president, a bit — but far less than Obama has flatly claimed. Obama invoked the phrase in his own battle with an Ayn Randian straw man — "people who think, well, it must be because I was just so smart"— and he was making the case for a robust and respected government role in the private sector, a core of the electoral argument. To say he was taken out of context was to say his words were meant to be trivial and meaningless — that he was merely saying that his audience had not in fact constructed the road outside with their hands, an absurd interpretation.
Other Ryan and Romney moves are farther down the spectrum. Romney's first ad took Obama unforgivably, flatly out of context, a classic and cynical example of a campaign saying something false to pick a fight and get attention.
I first noticed the conflation of the new pseudo-science of fact-checks and policy differences in candidate Barack Obama's 2008 "Fight the Smears" page. The page, a groundbreaking political device, began by debunking absurd smears about Obama's religion and background that were circulating on email chains. But as the campaign progressed, it morphed into a rapid-response operation, labeling any criticism with which the campaign disagreed a "smear." In its new version, for instance, it pushes back on criticism of the (obviously) authorized leaks about the bin Laden raid with a headline: "Fact check: President Obama has aggressively pursued and addressed national security leaks." Well, yes, but that is spin and pushback, not an actual check of the criticism of other leaks.
I'm not trying to make a case for what Irin Carmon, in one of the stronger defenses of the lying liars narrative, calls "cynical postmodernism," or suggesting that facts don't matter. (The other reason she says, accurately, that reporters don't like to call campaigns out is source-greasing.) Most political campaigns engage in big and small lies, and it is certainly reporters' jobs to call them out; I'm not sure we need fake metrics to do so, though; and what I'm particularly wary of is using those moments to build a campaign-style narrative.
The biggest lies tend to involve a kind of global blame: The Romney campaign, preposterously, blames Obama for job losses that stemmed from the global financial crisis. Obama blames Romney and Bain Capital for, basically, globalization: The steel mills that went bankrupt on Romney's watch were a tiny instance of the broad collapse of an industry. Obama, pointing to slow job growth in Massachusetts, also blames Romney for elements of an economic downturn he inherited. Romney continues to blame Obama for what are, in part, global economic problems.
Keeping this context in mind, and challenging specific claims, is different, though, from allowing oneself to be played by campaign operatives and partisan polemicists (on both sides) trying to build bogus fact patterns about the others' deep and telling dishonesty. (This is not to say, of course, that anyone who calls out Romney on bad facts is a DNC shill, by any means. There are also straightforward disagreements.)
Because at its heart, this is a rare campaign being conducted in the daylight on the highest stakes in American government, the giant domestic programs most Americans wind up using and the taxes that pay for them. Romney and Ryan would cut and restructure both; Obama would seek a way to maintain them. Those are the things politicians usually lie about.
Ben Smith is the editor-in-chief of BuzzFeed and is based in New York.
Contact Ben Smith at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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