On BuzzFeed today, Ben Smith argues that Paul Ryan’s false statements don’t matter that much because behind them are real policy differences with Obama. The core of Smith’s argument is this:
The Democrats are hoping to do to Paul Ryan what Republicans so successfully did to Al Gore: To conflate stray real personal exaggerations; rhetorical simplifications; and actual policy differences into an unfair character attack. Ryan (and now Romney) is in fact far more honest than any Republican national figure in memory in his explicit plan to turn Medicare into a less-expensive voucher system and to cut health care spending for poor people deeply.
Notably, Smith doesn’t really try to argue that Ryan’s statements are actually true. He just employs language to diminish their importance. The piece refers to “exaggerations,” “simplifications,” ” being tendentious,” and “caricature[s].”
Smith is correct, however, that Ryan would “turn Medicare into a less-expensive voucher system and … cut health care spending for poor people deeply.” That’s why his false statements about his plans are so consequential. He’s attempting to mislead the American people into accepting a policy agenda that, if presented honestly, they would be unlikely to support.
In his convention speech, Ryan was not honest about how he would “turn Medicare into a less-expensive voucher system.” Ryan said he “will protect and strengthen Medicare.” He didn’t admit that he plans to “cut health care spending for poor people deeply.” Rather, Ryan said the “truest measure of any society is how it treats those who cannot defend or care for themselves.”
Smith acknowledges Obama’s policies would “maintain” the current Medicare program. But Ryan told millions of people that “the greatest threat to Medicare is Obamacare,” blasting Obama for “$716 billion, funneled out of Medicare.” Ryan doesn’t mention that he included the same savings, which come from providers not recipients, in his own plan and that Obamacare provides billions in additional benefits to Medicare recipients and extends the life of the program by eight years.
Smith’s defense of Ryan’s claims on welfare reform, which even Republican governors supporting Romney and Ryan have acknowledged are false, is weaker. But his underlying point is the same. Underneath the false statements, there is a real policy dispute, so we should cut Ryan some slack.
The opposite is true. In 2008, Hillary Clinton claimed she came under sniper fire when she landed at the Tuzla Air Base in Bosnia in 1996. Video of the incident proved this never occured. What Clinton said was clearly false but there were no obvious policy consequences. She was not, after all, basing her campaign on the idea she would be quick on her feet on the battlefield.
Although Clinton acknowledged her error, Smith — who was writing at the time for POLITICO — had no issues with relentlessly covering the story for weeks. You can see examples of his coverage here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, and here. He was just one of many reporters covering the story for POLITICO.
Paul Ryan’s false statements on matters of real importance deserve more, not less, scrutiny.
Disclosure: The writer worked for Hillary Clinton’s campaign in 2008.