Facts Take a Beating in Acceptance Speeches
By MICHAEL COOPER; Published: August 31, 2012
Representative Paul D. Ryan used his convention speech on Wednesday to fault President Obama for failing to act on a deficit-reduction plan that he himself had helped kill. He chided Democrats for seeking $716 billion in Medicare cuts that he too had sought. And he lamented the nation’s credit rating — which was downgraded after a debt-ceiling standoff that he and other House Republicans helped instigate.
Ozier Muhammad/The New York Times
Barack Obama touring the G.M. plant in Janesville, Wis., in 2008.
And Mitt Romney, in his acceptance speech on Thursday night, asserted that President Obama’s policies had “not helped create jobs” and that Mr. Obama had gone on an “apology tour” for America. He also warned that the president’s Medicare cuts would “hurt today’s seniors,” claims that have already been labeled false or misleading.
The two speeches — peppered with statements that were incorrect or incomplete — seemed to signal the arrival of a new kind of presidential campaign, one in which concerns about fact-checking have been largely set aside.
In recent weeks, the Romney campaign has broadcast television advertisements leveling the widely debunked assertion that Mr. Obama had gutted the work requirements for welfare recipients. The Obama campaign, for its part, ran a deceptive ad saying that Mitt Romney had “backed a bill that outlaws all abortion, even in case of rape and incest,” although he currently supports exceptions in cases of rape, incest or when the life of the mother is at risk.
The growing number of misrepresentations appear to reflect a calculation in both parties that shame is overrated, and that no independent arbiters command the stature or the platform to hold the campaigns to account in the increasingly polarized and balkanized media firmament. Any unmasking of the lies or distortions, the thinking goes, rarely seeps into the public consciousness.
But an interesting question unfolding is whether there is a tipping point at which a candidate becomes so associated with falsehoods that it becomes part of his public persona — which hampered Vice President Al Gore during his run for president in 2000, when his misstatements on the campaign trail were used to stoke the perception that he could not be trusted in general.
In the case of Mr. Ryan’s speech, the jury is still out. It was received rapturously by the Republican Party faithful, but his many questionable assertions ensured that much of the analysis on Thursday focused on his accuracy more than his acumen.
The Obama campaign fanned the flames with a Web video mocking Mr. Ryan, showing anchors from CNN and Fox News questioning some of his statements. And Stephanie Cutter, the president’s deputy campaign manager, was blunt. “There’s no delicate way to say this: last night Paul Ryan lied, repeatedly, knowingly and brazenly,” she said.
Here are some of the misleading section of their convention speeches:
One of Mr. Ryan’s most pointed attacks on Mr. Obama was on the deficit. “He created a new bipartisan debt commission,” Mr. Ryan noted. “They came back with an urgent report. He thanked them, sent them on their way and then did exactly nothing.”
Left unsaid: Mr. Ryan served on that commission himself, and his opposition to its final proposals helped seal its fate. The panel, known as the Simpson-Bowles deficit commission, made a number of recommendations that Mr. Ryan ultimately opposed on the grounds that they would have raised some taxes while failing to cut enough from health programs. His dismissal of the plan was seen as a significant blow to its chances of success, since it soured other House Republicans on it.
In his attack on the president’s time in office, Mr. Ryan said: “It began with a perfect AAA credit rating for the United States. It ends with the downgraded America.”
When Standard & Poor’s lowered the nation’s credit rating, it was in large part because of the standoff last year over the debt ceiling — which needed to be raised so the government could borrow money to pay for spending that Congress had already approved. The White House had asked Congress to simply raise the debt ceiling; Mr. Ryan and House Republicans balked at doing so without reaching a deal on significant spending cuts. The ensuing standoff took the nation to the brink of default.
In its statement explaining the downgrade, Standard & Poor’s wrote that “the political brinkmanship of recent months highlights what we see as America’s governance and policy making becoming less stable, less effective and less predictable than what we previously believed. The statutory debt ceiling and the threat of default have become political bargaining chips in the debate over fiscal policy.”
Mr. Ryan spoke out forcefully against the “$716 billion funneled out of Medicare by President Obama,” without noting that his own past budget plans had counted on the same savings. And he pledged to protect Medicare without explaining how the Romney-Ryan plan would change it. Mr. Romney said that the Medicare cuts would “hurt today’s seniors.” In fact, the savings would come not from trimming benefits for current recipients, but from cutting the projected growth in reimbursements to hospitals and insurers over the next decade. The Medicare debate is shaping up as central to the election: Democrats say that the Romney-Ryan plan to reshape Medicare would force future beneficiaries to pay more for their health care, while Republicans fault Mr. Obama for cutting $716 billion in its projected growth.
Mr. Romney and Mr. Ryan have proposed limiting the government’s open-ended financial commitment to Medicare. Under their plan, the government would contribute a fixed amount on behalf of each beneficiary, and future beneficiaries could use that money to buy private insurance or to help pay for coverage under the traditional Medicare program. It would apply only to people currently under 55.
Mr. Ryan’s earlier plans called for capping the rate at which Medicare spending would grow — which analysts from groups including the Kaiser Family Foundation found would lead to higher out-of-pocket costs for future beneficiaries. The Romney campaign now says that their plan would work differently from Mr. Ryan’s original proposal, and would have the flexibility to raise the proposed cap on spending if it does not keep up with costs.
The $716 billion cut to Medicare that Mr. Obama made will reduce payments to health maintenance organizations and hospitals and other health care providers. Mr. Ryan initially counted on the same savings in his budget plans.
G.M.’s Janesville Plant
Mr. Ryan appeared to criticize Mr. Obama for the closing of a General Motors plant in Mr. Ryan’s hometown of Janesville, Wis. — a decision made before the president was elected and before his bailout of the auto industry, which was credited with saving a number of other factories. He noted that Mr. Obama had visited the plant in 2008 and said, “I believe that if our government is there to support you, this plant will be here for another hundred years.”
“Well, as it turned out,” Mr. Ryan said, “that plant didn’t last another year. It is locked up and empty to this day.”
As a candidate, Mr. Obama did give an economic policy speech at the Janesville plant in February 2008. The decision to close the plant was made several months later — as can be seen by a June 2008 letter from Mr. Ryan urging G.M. to reconsider.
It took some time for the plant to shut down, and some work continued there after Mr. Obama was sworn in as president.
The Ryan campaign said Thursday that the issue was not when the plant stopped production, but the fact that it has not reopened — and pointed to accounts of an Obama campaign statement from the fall of 2008 in which he said, “I will lead an effort to retool plants like the G.M. facility in Janesville so we can build the fuel-efficient cars of tomorrow and create good-paying jobs in Wisconsin and all across America.”
While Mr. Obama bailed out the auto industry, saving jobs, and included money in the stimulus for “green” energy jobs, the Janesville plant did not benefit from his moves.
The Apology Tour
In his floor speech, Mr. Romney repeated his widely debunked charge that Mr. Obama had gone on an “apology tour” on America’s behalf — an accusation he feels so strongly about that he laid out his own worldview in a 2010 book he titled “No Apology.”
But independent fact checkers have called the accusation a distortion, and it is hard to find evidence that Mr. Obama ever said he was sorry for the United States. Even in his speeches after winning the Nobel Peace Prize, Mr. Obama offered a strong defense of American policies, including the war in Afghanistan, which was growing increasingly unpopular in the rest of the world.