Paul Ryan and Why Lies Stick

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One of the most surprising things about Paul Ryan's speech to the Republican National Convention Wednesday was not that he shaded the truth, but that he told one lie that was so easily disproven.  Reporters used to be able to shame politicians into quitting repeating their lies. Mitt Romney himself got nostalgic for that bygone era just a couple weeks ago. "You know, in the past, when people pointed out that something was inaccurate, why, campaigns pulled the ad," Romney said on Bill Bennett’s radio show August 9. "They were embarrassed. Today, they just blast ahead." But Romney's own campaign has been very explicit about blasting ahead, no matter the fact-checkers' complaints. "We're not going to let our campaign be dictated by fact-checkers," Romney pollster Neil Newhouse said this week.

The morning's coverage of Ryan's speech has been dominated picking through its many factual errors. But the most apparent whopper, in our opinion, was the story Ryan told about what Barack Obama had said of GM plant in Janesville, Wisconsin in 2008, "I believe that if our government is there to support you … this plant will be here for another hundred years." And yet, Ryan said, "as it turned out, that plant didn’t last another year. And that's how it is in so many towns where the recovery that was promised is no where in sight." The obvious implication is that if Obama's policies were working that plant would still be open. There's just one big problem: Obama couldn't have saved it, because he was not in the White House. The plant announced it would close in June 2008. It sent home 1,200 workers for good in December 2008, keeping just 100 on until it closed entirely in 2009. This isn't a "shading the truth" problem, where people quibble over whether Obama's policy could have saved the plant. (And for that matter, Ryan himself asked for federal help to keep the plant open in 2008.) So, why would he lie about something so easily debunked by just looking at the dates on old newspaper stories?

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Well, because, there's no downside to getting caught. This post, and the many like it across the Internet this morning will not erase the gain Ryan got with telling a pat anecdote on national television. As Slate's Farhad Manjoo explained way back in 2008, there is little to lose by lying. One thing Ryan is taking advantage of is "media fragmentation." You can find plenty of websites and email forwards to support whatever your version of reality is. Here's Ari Fleischer, former spokesman for George W. Bush, this morning: "Ryan was right about Janesville GM plant. 'Factchecker' Politifact wrong. Check out Milwaukee Journal," he tweeted, linking to a 2011 story saying the GM plant is on standby. This was retweeted by the Weekly Standard's Stephen Hayes. But even this supposedly exculpatory article contains this sentence: "The Janesville plant stopped production of SUVs in 2008 and was idled in 2009 after it completed production of medium-duty trucks." But so what? Fleischer's tweet was retweeted 236 times. Hayes' retweet of it was retweeted 109 times.

Manjoo argued that if you look at the research into what political lies stick -- in 2004, Americans believed a million more jobs were lost under Bush than actually were, thanks to distortions from the John Kerry campaign -- the most powerful ones are those that the public is already primed to believe. That would explain why the kinds of lies Romney's going for are different than the ones John McCain used in 2008. McCain's campaign ran an ad saying Obama's "one accomplishment" on education was "legislation to teach 'comprehensive sex education' to kindergartners." Romney is not conjuring the image of Obama showing porn to kids. Instead, his -- and Ryan's -- false claims sticks to something they have been priming people to believe for months: Obama wasted money on a failed stimulus, that Obamacare is too costly, and that the President wants to give free money to undeserving lazy (and probably black) people. Take a look at Ryan's other false claims from Wednesday night -- they fit themes that have been floating around for three years:

  • Medicare. Ryan said Obama raided $716 billion from Medicare "at the expense of the elderly" As explains, "In fact, Medicare’s chief actuary says the law 'substantially improves' the system’s finances, and Ryan himself has embraced the same savings." Obamacare did not take away Medicare benefits, it expanded them.
  • The Deficit Commission. Ryan said, "He created a bipartisan debt commission. They came back with an urgent report. He thanked them, sent them on their way, and then did exactly nothing." Bloomberg's Josh Barro explains this is wrong on so many levels. The report wasn't an official report, because too many members of the debt commission voted against it. One of them was Ryan himself.
  • AAA Credit Rating. Ryan said Obama's presidency "began with a perfect Triple-A credit rating for the United States; it ends with a downgraded America." But the U.S. credit rating was downgraded by Standard & Poor's in August 2011, after the long debt ceiling fight in which House Republicans (including one Rep. Paul Ryan) threatened default if Obama didn't agree to their budget cuts. Standard & Poor's blamed both Republicans and Democrats for the downgrade.

Interestingly, Ryan did not mention, as other convention speakers did, the most controversial false claim of the Romney campaign so far: that Obama gutted welfare reform. It's not that Ryan has never touched an attack with an obvious racial element -- he did in Missouri August 23. So why didn't he talk about it? Maybe the campaign got nervous after all the reports about the attack's racial overtones. Or maybe Ryan remembered his idol, Jack Kemp, refused to play on racial resentment when he was a candidate for vice-president in 1996.

This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.