The Gore-ification of Paul Ryan

Regular readers know that I am not exactly a fan of Paul Ryan; I think his reputation as a bold truth-teller is undeserved. And I thought his convention speech contained one of the all-time whoppers, when he claimed that Barack Obama had spurned the advise of Simpson-Bowles, which he referred to as “they” and “them” instead of “we” and “us” — since Ryan was not only on the commission, but was the person most responsible for it making no recommendation after all.

All that said: a WaPo article earlier this week by Jerry Markon and Felicia Sonmez is absolutely awful. It’s exactly the wrong way to approach serious questions about a politician telling lies. By trivializing the issue into a series of gotchas, it is unfair to the politician because anyone who speaks in public all the time will make minor, unimportant factual errors, and unfair to the readers by failing to take the possibility that there’s more here than minor gaffes seriously.

Here we go. On the trivialization front: Markon and Sonmez begin with several paragraphs describing a back and forth controversy between the campaigns about whether Ryan has been telling the truth. That’s a mistake; Ryan was called out by independent fact-checkers and reporters for his convention speech, and framing the story as one of Ryan vs. the fact-checkers is a much different, and more serious, story.

Then the first specific alleged factual error that Ryan is accused of in the story doesn’t show up until the 7th paragraph, and it’s an entirely trivial question about where Ronald Reagan asked “are you better?” Apparently Ryan set it at Reagan’s convention and not at a debate, where it belongs. Then in the 9th paragraph we get the marathon time question — again, totally trivial. The 10th paragraph has a slightly less trivial question about whether Ryan supported stimulus funds in his district. Note that this one is more of a hypocrisy charge than one of factual error. That’s typical; once the reporters choose a frame, everything suddenly is presented as evidence of it, just as an error in 2000 would have been an example of stupidity for George W. Bush but lying for Al Gore. After the (on-line) jump, we finally get to the Janesville plant from his convention speech, and told that “Democrats and independent fact-checkers have criticized” it — rather than being told, for example, that Politfact gave that one a “false” rating. The story then gives no other examples from the convention speech, but moves back to Ryan’s mistaken characterization of some bankruptcy numbers as business bankruptcies instead of combined personal and business — again, a mistake, but not really one that’s especially nefarious in my view. Ryan then gets the last word, with someone attending his rally quoted:

“Sometimes people might color their stories a little bit, but I don’t think it’s an intentional misstatement,” said Roberts, who attended Ryan’s speech Tuesday near Cleveland. “I might’ve said I made six dozen cookies when in reality, it was only five dozen.”

Well, yes, in the context of the story, that seems about right. Ryan has made a few verbal flubs, and so we should simultaneously characterize him as someone who mixes up facts all the time, but not consider it all that serious of a problem. In other words, he’s exactly like the Al Gore who “invented the internet.”

But in fact, Ryan was accused of — and found guilty of — several important attempts to mislead in his convention speech.  The Janesville plant was just one; there’s also his version of the ACA Medicare cuts, and the stimulus, and of course the one that I find particularly bad, Simpson-Bowles. All of which the Post’s fact-checker, Glenn Kessler, had in his write-up of the speech. Oh, and Kessler also adds that the “didn’t build it” thing that Ryan and everyone else in Tampa used was a lie, too; just because it was constantly repeated doesn’t make it less of one.

Those things are the real questions about Ryan’s mendacity, not forgetting where Ronald Reagan made a comment. Let’s put it this way: we can debate whether Ryan is correct or the fact-checkers are right, and we can debate about exactly how important those attempts to mislead are, but they’re serious business.

One more thing. Markon and Sonmez give Ryan a pass on his previous reputation, saying that “He has not been known to stretch the truth during his seven terms in Congress, according to colleagues and a review of his record Tuesday.” We’re given no further details about that review of his record, but budget mavens have consistently faulted Ryan for some of his characterizations of his own plans and Barack Obama’s. For example, I took him to task for using the entirely false 6/10 myth about ACA. It’s true that some criticisms of Ryan have been basically ideological, slamming him for being a Randian or whatever, but another strain of criticism has been that his numbers simply don’t add up the way he says they do. Again, those criticisms may be wrong (hint: they aren’t!), but they are very much part of the context of complaints about Ryan’s convention speech.

So. What I’d say to reporters is: don’t Gore-ize Paul Ryan. Don’t start nitpicking every minor, trivial factual slip he makes. If it wouldn’t be news if Mitt Romney or Barack Obama or Joe Biden slipped up and said it, then it’s not news if Paul Ryan said it. However, do look into the accusations of serious mendacity; if you believe they have merit, then include those in the context of who Ryan is and how his campaign is going, and include them repeatedly; consider doing further reporting on it, but at the very least be aware of the kinds of things he says, and make sure he pays a price if he does it. But don’t trivialize it (and I realize that the Obama campaign probably is “helping” by pointing out trivial factual errors; resist that, too).

[Cross-posted at A plain blog about politics]

Jonathan Bernstein

Jonathan Bernstein is a political scientist who writes about American politics, especially the presidency, Congress, parties, and elections.