Convention Speeches: Do Facts Matter?

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Last night Paul Ryan gave his acceptance speech as the Republican Vice Presidential nominee. Since then the speech has been praised for its rhetorical persuasiveness and condemned for its factual inaccuracies. My first reaction was that I didn’t have much to add to what’s already out there. Then I read Ezra Klein’s thoughtful post, where he says he really wanted to give due attention to the speech’s reasonable criticisms of President Obama, but he could hardly find any. He contrasted it with Sarah Palin’s 2008 acceptance speech, which was equally bombastic but actually much more accurate.

Some of Ryan’s statements were simple untruths, as when he blamed Obama for a plant closing that actually occurred before he took office. Others were deeply hypocritical, as when he blamed Obama for failing to accept the Simpson-Bowles deficit-reductions recommendations that Ryan himself opposed. At least one was both misleading and hypocritical, the charge that Obama robbed Medicare of 716 billion dollars, implying that he was cutting Medicare benefits. This was actually more of a cost saving than a benefit cut, and Ryan included those same savings in his own budget plan. Take out all the blatantly unfair attacks on Obama, and about all that remains of Ryan’s economic message is a vague promise to create wealth through tax fairness and regulatory reform, neither of which he describes.

The speech is especially disappointing because Ryan is supposed to be the policy guy, the Republican who is most noted for his command of budget detail and policy options. He would be the one we could expect to spell out the Republican Medicare plan and tell us why it’s our best hope for preserving the program. But the speech was almost devoid of policy: nothing on the Romney-Ryan Medicare voucher plan, new tax cuts, or severe cuts to Medicaid and food stamps, not to mention social issues like abortion, immigration or gay rights. Many of the Republican positions are unpopular, but that’s all the more reason to explain and defend them. Didn’t Chris Christie, the keynote speeker from the night before, define leadership as a willingness to tell the hard truths?

What most concerns Ezra Klein is that the Romney campaign in general is so light on substance and heavy on factual inaccuracy. “Quite simply, the Romney campaign isn’t adhering to the minimum standards required for a real policy conversation.” Without more truth-in-advertising, Americans can’t elect a President and Vice-President without running a risk of serious buyer’s remorse.

Many commentators are content to throw up their hands and accept that plenty of truth-bending occurs on both sides. Klein realizes that this is an easy way for the commentator to appear fair and neutral. But even if lying is widespread, we lower the standard of political discourse when we let it pass. Also, we can’t always assume that both sides in a debate are equally evasive. Sometimes one side’s proposals are so unrealistic and unpopular that they have to distort them to get elected, and then their opponents really do have more of the facts on their side. If we don’t think so, then why not vote by flipping a coin?

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