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Fact and fiction on the campaign trail

3 September 2012

Economy with the truth has become ingrained in the Republican campaign, writes Lesley Russell, and was on show at the party convention


Paul Ryan, Republican vice-presidential nominee, scrambles after a balloon to give to one of Mitt Romney's grandchildren at the end of the fourth night of the Republican National Convention last week.
Photo: Mallory Benedict/ PBS NewsHour

Paul Ryan, Republican vice-presidential nominee, scrambles after a balloon to give to one of Mitt Romney's grandchildren at the end of the fourth night of the Republican National Convention last week.
Photo: Mallory Benedict/ PBS NewsHour

“Everyone is entitled to his own opinion, but not to his own facts.” ― Daniel Patrick Moynihan

LAST week’s Republican convention was choreographed to anoint Mitt Romney and Paul Ryan as the party’s presidential team and to present the self-designated Comeback Team to voters as family men with the values, empathy and experience needed to lead the nation. But what was revealed was a Republican Party running against Obama rather than for Romney and with a platform so extreme that both Romney and Ryan must repudiate their own past political records and severely distort the truth about Obama’s record.

The Republican Party has become more southern in its base, more conservative in its views and increasingly divided over how to govern in a two-party system. The Rockefeller Republicans of a generation ago – economically conservative but socially moderate – have virtually disappeared, lost in the rise of the Tea Party movement and those who require litmus tests for every candidate in relation to abortion, gun control, gay marriage, and the role of religion in public life.

The primary task in Tampa was to persuade Republicans to respect, if not love, Romney and party strategists organised the convention to ensure that there were no distractions. Disenfranchised Ron Paul delegates and the threat of Hurricane Isaac were disregarded in an agenda heavy on family appearances and testimonials set to convince voters of Romney’s character, compassion and convictions. Perhaps it is not surprising that policy, substance and veracity were noticeably lacking.

It is not unusual for politicians and their advertising to highlight convenient facts and ignore the inconvenient, but this year’s presidential campaign takes the reinvention of the facts and history to new lows. Independent fact-checking, first institutionalised during the 2004 and 2008 campaigns, now figures prominently, but this has not stopped obfuscations of the facts, statements taken out of context, and in some cases, blatant untruths. As one Republican pollster bluntly stated, “We’re not going to let our campaign be dictated by fact-checkers.”

While the Democrats are not blameless in this regard, the Republicans have been shameless in their distortions of the truth, turning their own opinions into their own facts, and never more so than during the past week.

We were entitled to expect better. Romney had said that “voters deserve an honest debate. And that’s what Paul Ryan and I will give them.” Convention delegates might have thought that was coming when New Jersey governor Chris Christie told them that the nation was about to hear the “hard truths” about what was needed to restore national pride and shore up the federal balance sheet. But the fact-checkers’ immediate and unequivocal verdict on Ryan’s speech was that it contained a number of false and misleading statements, repeatedly left out key facts and ignored context. They were kinder to Romney, finding exaggeration and puffery but concluding that he had avoided major falsehoods. The Wall Street Journal criticised both Romney and Ryan for failing to outline their policies and economic agenda.

Ryan told delegates that Obama’s presidency is “adrift, surviving on slogans that already seem tired, grasping at a moment that has already passed.” He went on to say that “we will not duck the tough issues; we will lead.” But no one at the convention ever went beyond slogans to solutions and there was a recurrent theme of blaming others – mostly Obama – for problems.

The Republican opposition to Obama is palpable, and the party’s oft-stated and singular focus has been to make Obama a one-term president. Indeed, congressional Republicans have been so intent on denying Obama any achievement that they were willing to hold the nation’s credit rating hostage to their partisan agenda.

Perhaps the most egregious example of how the party misrepresents Obama’s agenda is the recent Romney media advertisement that claims the Obama administration has “gutted” welfare reform by offering waivers to states seeking more flexibility in meeting federal work requirements. The ad says that “under Obama’s plan, you wouldn’t have to work and wouldn’t have to train for a job. They just send you your welfare check.” That this gets a “pants on fire” rating from the fact-checkers is of no concern to Republicans. As Newt Gingrich told CNN, “We have no proof today [that this ad claim is true], but I would say to you under Obama’s ideology it is absolutely true he would be comfortable sending a lot of people checks for doing nothing.”

WHEN Paul Ryan was selected as Romney’s running mate, assertions were made that this would mean a real debate about the nation’s fiscal future. Certainly Ryan’s reputation as a budget policy expert puts pressure on the Republican ticket to articulate and defend its economic vision rather than simply stoke the electorate’s disappointment and dissatisfaction with Obama.

To date, that debate has not moved beyond the usual bromides and bandaids, with vague offers of help (read lower taxes) for the middle class. One obvious reason for this absence of policy discussion is continuing confusion in the Republican camp about which policy and budget approach is in play – Ryan’s or Romney’s. This confusion is further confounded by Romney’s policy flip-flops, Ryan’s budget modifications, and the fact that the numbers just don’t add up. Maybe the Republicans are afraid that too many details will leave them vulnerable to attacks by the Democrats. Avoiding policy debates means avoiding the tricky details that are hard to explain and trip candidates up and not having to acknowledge that a benefit to one constituency comes at a cost to another.

Romney has recently embraced the conservative preference for small government and balanced budgets, but this has not always been the case. He has previously argued that government spending, including public investments in private companies, can stimulate the economy and create jobs. Now both he and Ryan propose that the deficit should be reduced solely through budget cuts and that less government spending will stimulate growth.

Romney has promised to raise defence spending, cap total spending at 20 per cent of GDP, keep all the Bush tax cuts, and balance the budget. There is no way this can be done without crushing social security, Medicare and Medicaid and, even then, more revenue would still be needed.

Ryan has criticised Obama for ignoring the budget recommendations of the Simpson–Bowles commission, but omits to mention both that he served on the commission and that he then voted against its proposals. His own budget numbers don’t add up: $4.3 trillion in tax cuts (targeted primarily at upper-income Americans) are only partially offset by $1.7 trillion in spending cuts (made at the expense of low-income families). Moreover his budget plan will not balance the budget for twenty-eight years.

Ryan also criticises Obama’s healthcare reforms, which will reduce the growth of Medicare by $716 billion – he calls this cuts to Medicare – while failing to indicate that his own budget plan assumes the same Medicare savings. Ryan’s convention speech didn’t mention his plan to turn Medicare into a voucher system, turn Medicaid over to the whim of the states, and leave some fifty million Americans without any health cover. Instead, he proclaimed, without any apparent irony, that “a Romney–Ryan administration will protect and strengthen Medicare” and sanctimoniously declared that “the true measure of any society is how it treats those who cannot defend or care for themselves.” It’s surprising to see all this dissembling and more from a man who built his reputation on wonkish immersion in the details and a willingness to tackle the uncomfortable issues.

The Romney campaign now says there is a different plan for Medicare, but it has not articulated what this might be. The Republican platform calls for a “transition to a premium-support model for Medicare” from the current “unsustainable defined-benefit entitlement model.” On the other hand, both Romney and Ryan have now said that they would restore the $716 billion in Medicare cuts by repealing the healthcare reform law. The Congressional Budget Office estimates that this would raise the deficit by $109 billion over ten years, an uncomfortable fact the Republicans have ignored.

It is interesting to note that even as Romney is tentatively embracing Ryan’s budget proposals, Republican congressional candidates are distancing themselves, especially from the cuts in entitlements programs. House speaker John Boehner has consistently refused to say whether a Republican election victory in November would be a mandate to pass a Ryan-style Medicare overhaul.

Ultimately convention speeches are about personalising the candidates and presenting the broad arguments for the team. Both political parties will stretch the truth in order to advance their political interests, to present their candidates in a favourable light. Realistically, conventions are not the place for policy presentations. But as we move into the general campaign, there are expectations that both sides of politics must present the details and the rationales that entitle them to the electorate’s vote and the public’s trust.

This will not be easy for Romney, who seems uncertain about his core beliefs. He has changed his positions on healthcare mandates, abortion, stem cell research, immigration, gay rights, climate change, gun control and the link between the federal minimum wage and inflation. Issues once seen as Republican strengths – foreign affairs and national security – have received scant attention. This is not just because neither Romney nor Ryan has more than minimal expertise in these areas; Obama has handled counter-terrorism and diplomacy very effectively, to the extent that, when asked, former secretary of state Condoleezza Rice could not name an area in foreign policy where he had failed.

Obama and Romney will need to reach beyond their traditional voter bases if they want to win on 6 November and beyond narrow partisan agendas if they are to govern in the next four years. As New York Times columnist Tom Friedman has succinctly pointed out, this is about more than winning debates. Unless some way forward can be found in which the centre-left and the centre-right of American politics can rise above partisan politics to cooperate and deal on the issues, there is little hope that this campaign will give the winner any basis for governing over the next four years. •

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