The Upside-Down World of Paul Ryan

Last night, vice presidential nominee Paul Ryan, a Wisconsin congressman, accepted the nomination with a speech that took place in a world of his own making. The breathtaking dishonesty of Ryan’s speech seems to have shocked a lot of journalists and observers.

A lot of outlets talked around the “L” word. The Associated Press fact-check used the term “factual shortcuts” and said Ryan “strayed from reality,” while USA Today came closer by saying Ryan’s speech “contained several false claims and misleading statements.” But let’s say it outright: Paul Ryan lied. He lied, deliberately, about a lot of things.

It’s especially galling because Rep. Ryan has acquired an undeserved reputation in Washington as a “serious” guy, a courageous teller of bold truths. One hopes that the straight-shooting Paul Ryan myth will fade away after last night. We’ll see.

Jonathan Chait points out that it’s not just the individual errors and misinformation that are the problem with Ryan’s speech:

His deep dishonesty largely reflects the fundamental gap between the radicalism of his agenda and his need for public acceptance…even if all the smaller component dishonesties of Ryan’s speech were true, the larger points they undergirded were false as well.

The most straightforwardly black-is-white lie in Ryan’s speech concerned the GM plant in Ryan’s hometown of Janesville, Wisconsin. Ryan attacked Obama for the plant ceasing operations. But the decision to end production in Janesville was made in 2008—before President Obama came into office and implemented a rescue plan for the auto industry. In December of 2008, before Obama’s inauguration, GM shut down nearly all operations at Janesville, laying off around 1,200 workers and leaving only about 50 there to complete an order.

It is true that, after having halted nearly all operations at the plant in 2008, GM considered Janesville as one possible location to start producing again in 2009; the plant was “on standby.” But the important thing to note here is that had Romney been president at the time, we know what he would have done, because he wrote it out starkly: “let Detroit go bankrupt.” That would have meant the loss of hundreds of thousands of jobs—and the disappointment felt in Janesville would only have been more widespread. If Ryan is making an argument for a bigger, more comprehensive federal government investment in the auto industry, I’d be curious to hear that argument. What it seems like is happening is that he’s casting blame to score a political point—and arguing by assertion that things will get better because of him and Romney, which is exactly the kind of shallow promise Ryan claimed he doesn’t believe in.

There are at least four other major lies in Ryan’s speech, notes Jonathan Cohn, who points out that it’s striking to see a major convention speech this dependent on completely false premises. Dylan Matthews identifies more misleading statements.

And just to pull out another: Ryan called the Recovery Act a corrupt bill that left out “working men and women of this country,” despite the fact that the Recovery Act helped stop the utter collapse of jobs and offered almost $300 billion in middle-class tax cuts. You know who doesn’t believe this talking point about the Recovery Act? Paul Ryan, who apparently thought the bill was so corrupt and useless that he requested funds from it to help his district.

But this seems to be a pattern for the Romney-Ryan campaign, who have based many of their sharpest attacks on outright falsehoods. “We’re not going to let our campaign be dictated by fact-checkers,” one top Romney strategist has said, and this has been clear from their very first ad.

The Republican candidates are cleverly exploiting widespread distrust and disillusionment with politics—as David Dayen notes, they know that every debunking of their points will get blurred with fresh misinformation. And they have the benefit of an active media apparatus that reports entirely on the “parallel universe” where their claims take place.

But even if fact-checking can’t shame the shameless Romney and Ryan, it’s still worth calling out the dishonesty when we see it. It helps us understand who these candidates are and what they think of us.

You don’t give a pitch this dishonest to people whose intelligence you respect. You don’t call out empty promises on one hand and promise you’ll magically fix the economy with upper-class tax cuts on the other. And you don’t say that “working men and women of this country” were “cut out of the deal” when the deal you’re offering them is the upward redistribution of the Romney-Ryan plan.

Photo of Rep. Paul Ryan by Gage Skidmore on Flickr