Thursday, August 30, 2012

Pushing the Envelope Too Far

There’s sort of this unwritten rule in politics.  On the campaign trail anything goes.  You can throw the kitchen sink at your opponent.  If you want you can call him a Russian spy if you think that might get you some votes.  In one of the nastiest campaigns ever between John Adams and Thomas Jefferson, the Jefferson campaign accused Adams of “being a hermaphrodite” while the Adams campaign accused Jefferson of “being the son of a half-breed Indian squaw and a mulatto father.”

The campaigns of 1828 and 1876 were filled with accusations of murder, prostitution, and stealing.  Perhaps the most contentious and bitterly fought campaign was the one that pitted Howard Taft against his old friend Teddy Roosevelt.  Roosevelt was so incensed at what he perceived as Taft’s betrayal of his principles that he ran as an independent, thereby resulting in the election of Democrat Woodrow Wilson to the presidency.

But while campaigns can be extremely nasty, conventions are supposed to be altogether different.  It’s not that they’re squeaky clean, mind you; it’s just that the attendees who speak at these events tend to opt for a more general, higher road tone.  And while you are allowed to say your opponent is wrong, maybe even articulate somewhat on how and why, you’re not supposed to deliberately make false accusations that can be easily fact-checked by anyone with an iPad in attendance. 

Apparently Paul Ryan was absent when they went over that rule because in his vice-presidential acceptance speech he committed no fewer than five flagrant lies that were so obvious that even Fox News called him out on it.

The second worst of these involved the $716 billion that President Obama supposedly “stole” from Medicare to pay for his healthcare law.  This is blatantly false.  The $716 billion represents savings in reimbursement rates that will add almost ten years to the solvency of the entitlement program.  In fact, Ryan’s own budget proposes to save the same exact amount.  The only difference is where the savings goes: to healthcare for millions who can’t afford it or to the richest income earners in the form of tax cuts.

But the sleaziest, most disgusting lie was when Ryan made it sound – without actually saying it outright – as if Obama was responsible for a GM plant that shutdown in December of 2008, a full month before he was even sworn in as president.  It was sleazy because Ryan knew that Obama had nothing to do with the closing; yet he floated it out there to provoke a reaction among the crowd and to drum up animosity among frustrated workers who are still unemployed, especially in Wisconsin which is now considered a toss-up state.  Sleazy and cheap.

Well it appears, at least for now, as though Ryan’s stunt has backfired.  The press has turned his speech inside out and thoroughly trashed it as misleading and filled with falsehoods.  My favorite critique came from the supposedly fair and balanced quarter.  Sally Kohn, a Fox News’ contributor, summed up Ryan’s speech in three words: dazzling, deceiving and distracting.  The deceiving part was what caught my eye.

On the other hand, to anyone paying the slightest bit of attention to facts, Ryan’s speech was an apparent attempt to set the world record for the greatest number of blatant lies and misrepresentations slipped into a single political speech. On this measure, while it was Romney who ran the Olympics, Ryan earned the gold.

The good news is that the Romney-Ryan campaign has likely created dozens of new jobs among the legions of additional fact checkers that media outlets are rushing to hire to sift through the mountain of cow dung that flowed from Ryan’s mouth.


Now to be fair (pun intended) Kohn is hardly a conservative.  She’s actually one of those “balanced” talking heads that Fox trots out now and then to support the line they’ve been peddling for years: that they’re fair and balanced.  So Fox News itself wasn’t actually ripping the Ryan speech; merely one of its liberal elitist employees.

Still, even if you discount Kohn, which I certainly don’t, there were plenty of other journalists who took their turn blasting the speech.

Dan Amira from New York magazine called it “appallingly disingenuous and shamelessly hypocritical.”

Ryan Lizza from The New Yorker said, “Ryan started this race with a reputation for honesty. He’s on his way to losing it.”

But the best came from blog favorite Paul Krugman, who wrote “If you’re going to be deceptive, you should at least put in the effort to avoid offering targets that even the most diffident, balance-loving reporters will have a hard time hittingmissing.”

And that’s the real crux of the matter here.  The idea that politicians should use the platforms accorded them at conventions to become statesmen is certainly a novel, if somewhat naïve, concept.  If there was such a thing as an objective truth it died a slow and painful death sometime around the last ice age.  Everyone knows political conventions are little more than infomercials.

But Ryan, in appropriating so many obvious lies in a speech that could’ve been the catalyst for his Party to build some badly needed momentum over the last two months of the campaign, didn’t just cross a line; he leapfrogged it.

He didn’t need to lie to make his point.  Whether you agree with Paul Ryan’s vision for America or not, it is worth having a discussion over.  By engaging in such reprehensible behavior, Ryan undercut his whole argument, not to mention his own credibility, and came across as someone with something to hide.  What does it say about your platform when you have to lie about your opponent to sell it?  It’s one thing to throw mud at the opposition; it’s quite another to fire a pistol.

And now, thanks to Ryan’s poor judgment, the Obama Administration will have plenty of ammo with which to return fire.


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