After the two weeks of the political formalities more commonly known as the Republican and Democratic National Conventions, fact checking is front and center during this election cycle. The fact checkers are the ultimate source of truth because they crunch the numbers and say when the candidates are wildly lying. Right?
For once, we are going to hold the fact-checkers accountable to their own statements, and see how they have distorted Paul Ryan’s speech at the RNC and President Obama’s speech at the DNC to support their claims:
Claims about the RNC: Paul Ryan’s Speech at the RNC lied about Medicare, Auto Industry Bailout/ Jamesville GM plant, stimulus funding, and Simpson-Bowles (Claims from The Atlantic, Talking Points Memo, The Daily Beast, Associated Press, New York Times, NPR, Factcheck.org)
Medicare: Paul Ryan stated, “716 billion dollars [was] funneled out of Medicare by President Obama … all to pay for a new entitlement (referring to the Affordable Care Act) we didn’t even ask for.” All the fact checks claim that Paul Ryan’s Medicare plan keeps the same $716 billion in cuts, and therefore his statement is a “lie” (although the appropriate word to use would be hypocritical, but let us put semantics aside). These fact checks are misleading for a couple of reasons. Yes, Paul Ryan’s Medicare plan preserved the same cuts. However, there is a very clear distinction he made between cutting the $716 billion from Medicare to fund the Affordable Care Act and cutting the $716 billion while proposing an alternative for the purpose of increasing Medicare’s solvency. Irrespective of whether you agree with Paul Ryan’s Medicare plan or believe that it will make Medicare more solvent, the assertion that he “lied” about the ACA is false.
Auto Industry Bailout/ Jamesville GM Plant: Before we accuse Ryan of opposing Obama and the auto bailout, or as The Atlantic puts it, “wouldn’t there have been a lot more closed plants” if Ryan had his way, we need to acknowledge that Ryan voted for and defended the auto-industry bailout. As for the Jamesville Plant, it shut down in April 2009 (see this news clip), and not before the Obama presidency began as the fact checkers allege.
Stimulus Funding: The idea that Ryan is supposedly insincere for accepting stimulus funding that he opposed is counter-intuitive. If the government is providing money, obviously his constituents are going to want it. It’s the same logic for the detractors that say Ryan is hypocritical for accepting social security to pay for college after the death of his dad. This is not a fact check, only a distortion that goes against common sense.
Simpson-Bowles: Yes, Paul Ryan did vote against Simpson-Bowles, but that does not make his claim that President Obama did not accept its recommendations counter-factual. Ryan voted against the measure because he did not believe it went far enough to reduce the deficit, specifically for not removing the ACA. He also proposed his own economic plans with Path to Prosperity. Once again, it does not matter whether you support Path to Prosperity, but more that Ryan proposed an alternative to Simpson-Bowles. His point was that Obama did not even accept a weaker proposal in his view to reduce the deficit, and on that point, he is correct.
Claims about the DNC: President Obama’s speech lied about domestic oil/ energy production, the Iraq War, General Motors, and same tax rate as the Clinton Presidency (Claims from USA Today, The Daily Beast, Factcheck.org, CBS News, Huffington Post, ABC News, Washington Post)
Domestic oil/ energy production: The quote in question is, “In the last year alone, we cut oil imports by 1 million barrels a day, more than any administration in recent history. And today the United States of America is less dependent on foreign oil than at any time in the last two decades.” This raised red flags with fact checkers because oil production increased substantially on private lands as opposed to federal lands. Although, this is factually correct it does not necessarily indicate that the statistic cited by Obama is misleading. The president did not make any claims regarding lowering gas prices over the next four years or any other questionable conclusions based off of this finding. Obama also issued an Executive Order in April dedicated to the safe development of natural gas resources. Therefore, the reference in his speech was not misleading, as the administration is taking substantive action on these issues.
Iraq War: Obama is accused of taking credit here for the removal of soldiers from Iraq on a timetable put forth by the Bush administration. Yes, the schedule was put in place in December of 2008 during the last days of the Bush presidency. However, leaving Iraq was a campaign promise of Obama in 2008 that he stuck to. It so happened that President Bush put forth an Iraq exit strategy towards the end of his presidency that Obama agreed with. Likewise, there was no reason for Obama to put forth a new strategy for the sake of taking credit. Obama promised when he entered office to leave Iraq and he stuck to it.
General Motors: The president touted the auto-industry bailout by stating, “we reinvented a dying auto industry that’s back on top of the world.” The fact-checkers griped that General Motors is currently number 2 in the world behind Toyota. Once again, this fact check is true on its face, but it is an erroneous thing to pick on for a fact check. GM regained the top spot in the world in 2011, but dropped to number 2 in 2012. The fact that it is still incredibly competitive with the top automotive companies in the world is an accomplishment during the Obama administration worth taking credit for, and not one for fact checking into obscurity.
Same Tax Rates of Clinton Presidency: The president stated, “I want to reform the tax code so that it’s simple, fair, and asks the wealthiest households to pay higher taxes on incomes over $250,000 – the same rate we had when Bill Clinton was president; the same rate we had when our economy created nearly 23 million new jobs.” Factcheck.org regards this promise in Obama’s speech as a falsehood because of the increase in Medicare payroll taxes and the additional 3.8 percent tax on investment income. It is pretty clear that Obama was referring to the expiration of the Bush tax cuts and for the top marginal income tax rate to return to 39.6 percent. Although statutory tax rates may be higher than Clinton if the Bush tax cuts expire, it is flawed to draw the comparison without analyzing the differences in effective tax rates, or the amount people are actually paying. More taxes may be enacted in law, but there are arguably more loopholes in the system than there were during the Clinton Administration. Likewise, hammering the president on this point is unfair without doing further research on effective tax rates between the two administrations.
Conclusion: Fact checks can be very truthful, but many times they express the opinion of the writer as opposed to objective analysis. Similarly, we need to be as skeptical of the fact checkers as we are of the politicians they are checking.