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Romney’s Performance Is a Test for the Media

It’s easy to forget now, but the initial reaction to Paul Ryan’s speech to the Republican National Convention in August was overwhelmingly positive. On CNN, for example, Wolf Blitzer called it “a powerful speech … Paul Ryan certainly on this night delivered.” Gloria Borger agreed: “I think that Paul Ryan did a great job.” Among the network's anchors, only Erin Burnett sensed Ryan’s speech might have included some distortions. And even she gave it a glowing review: “Precise, clear, and compassionate.”

Burnett, of course, was onto something. In the hours and days that followed, analysts and journalists scrutinized Ryan’s statements and found all sorts of blatant deceptions. He’d blamed President Obama for the shuttering of an auto factory in Wisconsin, even thought it’d closed before he took office and Obama had famously rescued the auto industry, saving Chrysler and General Motors from oblivion. Ryan had attacked Obama for cutting Medicare by $716 billion when, in fact, Ryan had twice called for the same cuts in his own budget proposals. 

Professional fact-checkers and critics from the left, including yours truly, were the first to cite these misrepresentations. But soon even mainstream journalists started pointing them out. It became part of the narrative. And, arguably, it affected public perceptions.

I thought about that today as I watched and read media coverage of last night’s presidential debate. The consensus, even among Obama’s allies, was that the president blew it. He lacked energy. He failed to make his points succinctly. He allowed Romney to appear more in command of facts.

All of these things are true. And all of these things are worthy of discussion. Presidents are human beings, so we want to know how they act and react in the public spotlight. Presidents are also communicators, so we want to know how well they can make the case for their policies. Obama himself should know that as well as anybody. As he has admitted, his failure to persuade more Americans to support his policies has caused him serious political problems during his first term.

But that is the not the whole story—or, I would argue, the most important story. As some of us have noted, Romney’s debate performance was full of distortions, just like Ryan’s speech had been. The two most important were about two of the most important parts of Romney’s agenda.

The most obvious was Romney’s claim that “pre-existing conditions are covered under my plan.” No they aren't. Romney's plan would protect people with pre-existing conditions if, and only if, they already have insurance. Current law basically does that already. The question is what happens to people whose insurance lapses, because they lost a job or because they couldn’t afford premiums or because their carrier decided to hike rates. Romney’s plan would be all but useless to them. This was such an obvious lie that Romney’s own advisor, Eric Fehrnstrom, was forced to admit as much after the debate, while speaking with reporters in the spin room. 

Romney also denied that he had endorsed a $5 trillion tax cut. But the proposal he unveiled last March, which included a 20 percent reduction in all marginal tax rates, would cost $5 trillion. Not even conservatives dispute that. Romney has said he would offset that tax cut by closing loopholes, but he’s never specified which ones. An independent study by the Tax Policy Center, a non-partisan research institute run by Brookings and the Urban Institute, says Romney’s promise is mathematically impossible, given his simultaneous promises not to raise taxes on the middle classes and not to let his tax plan inflate the deficit. Romney said six other studies back him up. That, too, is false. (Peter Coy of Bloomberg Businessweek and Dylan Matthews of the Washington Post have more details.)

Obama tried to make this point on Wednesday. He didn’t do so in a particularly effective way. But, in fairness, it’s difficult to convince viewers the other guy is twisting the truth when the other guy is willing to do so confidently, without obvious remorse or hesitation. And that’s why the media has such an important role to play. Reporting on the state of the campaign is important. Reporting on the substance of the campaign is more important. And while I’m hardly the first person to make this case, the media historically has gotten those priorities upside down.

This moment, then, is a critical test for how far the media has come—and whether it remains at the mercy of politicians willing to exploit the conventions of even-handedness. The Romney comeback narrative was ready to go even before last night’s debate. If Friday’s jobs report is disappointing and, more important, if Romney’s poll numbers rise, that narrative will be valid and the media should not be shy about reporting it. But the focus right now really should be on what Obama and Romney said on Wednesday night—and whether they were truthful. The media's number one job isn't to tell us how people reacted. It's to tell us how people should react. (Or, at least, on what facts people should make that judgment.)

Such an accounting needn't spare Obama. He said he merely wanted upper income tax filers to pay what they did during the Clinton era. Actually, once you include his health care plan, upper income tax payers would pay even more. He said his deficit reduction plan would produce $4 trillion in savings over ten years, but that uses the standard budget gimmick of counting almost $848 billion in defense cuts everybody already expects.

Overall, though, Romney’s distortions were more plentiful and more significant. It's not even close. As Jonathan Bernstein wrote at the Washington Post, thinking along the same lines, "It seems that there are at least as many factually challenged comments from Romney’s debate performance as there were in Ryan’s speech, although it may have lacked any screaming-headline lies."

As I’ve said many times, the proper standard for truth in a campaign is whether a candidate is trying to mislead voters about what he’s done or what he would do in office. Romney on Wednesday night tried make voters believe he never endorsed tax cuts for the rich, that he can magically reduce taxes without raiding the deficit, and that he can repeal Obamacare without making it more difficult for people to get health insurance. And that wasn't even the extent of it.

Will the media do its job, like it did after the Ryan speech? Will it point this out, plainly and clearly? It’s really too soon to tell.

follow me on twitter @CitizenCohn