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The Difference Between Political Lies and Political Dishonesty

Paul Ryan’s speech to the Republican convention last week seems to have been some kind of watershed moment, at least for the media. Many of us watching the speech felt it was full of deceptive statements. That wasn’t a new development. But this time reporters from the big, mainstream outlets said they agreed. That was a new development. Perhaps the most vivid and important instance was a story in the New York Times, by Michael Cooper, which told readers that several Ryan statements were “incorrect, incomplete or incompatible with his own record in Congress.”

But has the media overreacted? The usual suspects in the right wing press think so. But so do Ross Douthat, the conservative columnist on the Times op-ed page, and Ben Smith, editor-in-chief of Buzzfeed. Neither are knee-jerk defenders of Romney, Ryan, and the Republicans. You should take them seriously. I certainly do.

And they raised some good points. The definition of “lie” is less specific than you might think, at least according to the dictionaries I consulted. It can mean any statement that is deceptive. But in politics we understand “lie” to mean a statement that is flatly, objectively untrue. Very few, if any, of Ryan’s statements would satisfy that narrow definition. Most of Ryan’s statements were deceptive because they left out critical context. 

But the statements that deserve the most scrutiny in presidential campaigns aren’t necessarily the ones that misstate facts. They are the statements that, as Kevin Drum wrote at Mother Jones over the weekend, represent “attempts to mislead.” They are the arguments that distort what a politician thinks, what a politician has done in the past, or what a politician would do in the future—in other words, statements that might cause us to vote one way or another based on false impressions of the choice we face.

We’ve gotten a few such statements from the Obama campaign, to be sure. But we’ve gotten many more from the Romney-Ryan campaign. The five deceptions many of us saw in Ryan’s speech are perfect examples:

1. The Janesville story. Ryan’s invocation of the story left the impression that Obama could have saved the idled General Motors factory in Janesville, Wisconsin, even though the factory effectively ceased operations in 2008, except for a minimal crew that stayed on to fill backorders into 2009. But, as some of us noted at the time, the real problem with the statement was its implication that Obama had neglected autoworkers. That’s quite obviously untrue. In the spring of 2009, Obama approved a government rescue of Chrysler and General Motors. He did so over the objections of most Republicans and against the advice of many political strategists—and, in the process, quite possibly saved the Midwest from economic catastrophe.

2. Medicare. Ryan once again accused Obama of “raiding” Medicare to pay for Obamacare. Factually speaking, this is a defensible statement: The Affordable Care Act does reduce Medicare spending by more than $700 billion. And it does spend a lot of money on coverage for non-elderly people. But when Romney and Ryan say this, they are implying they would never endorse such cuts—even though both of Ryan’s budgets, which Romney repeatedly embraced, call for reducing Medicare by the exact same amount of money. And while both Romney and Ryan now say they would restore the money Obama cut from Medicare, that would be virtually impossible given Romney’s commitment to reduce non-defense spending to 16 percent of GDP.  

3 & 4. The credit downgrade and high deficits: Ryan said the downgrade of America’s credit rating and the recent spike in the federal deficit happened on Obama’s watch. True statements? Unquestionably. But, again, the implication is that Obama is responsible for these things. That’s not so. As analysis from the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities pointed out, it was the policies of Obama’s predecessor—chiefly, the Bush tax cuts and the two overseas wars—that generated the high deficits. And it was the Republican Party’s flouting of convention, refusing to increase the country’s credit limit (itself a legislative anachronism) unless Obama met their demands, that spooked the credit markets.

5. Protecting the weak. Ryan said:

We have responsibilities, one to another—we do not each face the world alone. And the greatest of all responsibilities, is that of the strong to protect the weak. The truest measure of any society is how it treats those who cannot defend or care for themselves. … We can make the safety net safe again.

After I wrote about this, several commenters pointed out that the initial part of that statement, on protecting “the weak” and treating “those who cannot defend or care for themselves” was probably a reference to abortion rights. Obviously that would be totally consistent with Ryan’s (and Romney’s) position. That part of the statement isn’t as misleading as I thought.

But look closely at that last sentence and the phrase, “make the safety net safe again.” That may not be a false statement, but it's a grossly misleading one. Based, again, on analysis from the Center on Budget, the Ryan budget would take two-thirds of its money from programs affecting poor people. Romney’s spending cap would, if anything, require even steeper cuts, at least based on the parameters he’s given. Even if you believe these programs are incredibly wasteful—and the evidence suggests they’re a lot more efficient than you’ve probably heard—there’s simply no credible argument that such deep cuts would do anything but leave millions of low-income Americans more exposed to hunger, homelessness, and medical crisis.

Think of it this way: A Martian who came down to earth and heard Ryan speak last week would conclude that Obama had abandoned the auto industry; that Romney and Ryan would never cut spending from Medicare; that Obama is to blame for high deficits and the credit downgrade; and that Romney and Ryan are out to save the safety net. This poor Martian would have it exactly backwards.

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