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Politifact Hands Mitt Romney Premature 'Pants On Fire'

Romney Debate

First Posted: 01/19/2012 5:31 pm Updated: 01/19/2012 5:31 pm

Over at Politico, Dylan Byers makes a great catch and turns in a piece that offers some insight into how your Politifact sausage gets made.

Seems that when Politifact wanted to fact-check a statement made by Mitt Romney -- "Our Navy is smaller than it's been since 1917. Our Air Force is smaller and older than any time since 1947" -- made at Monday's South Carolina debate, they reached out to a military historian named Tom Bruscino to see if he could aid in the truth-squadding. Bruscino offered up a detail-rich response, explaining that Romney was more or less factually accurate, but lacking in context. Bruscino's explanation is very helpful -- it gives cogent consideration to the sorts of issues that come up in top-flight defense reporting:

So, given the geopolitical situation and the state of technology, it seems that the Navy and Air Force can stand to be smaller than they have been in the past. But there is a key contextual difference. Because the forces are so reliant on a small number of expensive and highly sophisticated ships and aircraft to to the job of large numbers of less sophisticated technologies in the past, the current technologies are more valuable and the overall system is more fragile.

If the Navy loses one aircraft carrier to enemy action, for any reason, that loss would be catastrophic in a way such a loss would not have been in the past. Likewise, the Air Force cannot afford to lose even small numbers of the highly sophisticated airframes of today. An additional contextual difference is that the U.S. military used to prepare during peacetime to mass produce weapons and material in the event of war. That is not the case today. For better or worse, the military is stuck with what it has for a long time once war begins, and regardless of losses (e.g.: the delay in producing up-armored Humvees and MRAPS for Iraq). In that sense, the small but sophisticated military is also risky.

If you really want to get deep into the weeds on topics such as, say, Defense Department budgeting, these matters are key. What are the future threats and where will they come from? How do we confront these threats? With what force? With what tech? How should a limited amount of money be best spent? When Romney says something like, "Our Navy is smaller than it's been since 1917. Our Air Force is smaller and older than any time since 1947," that opens the door to a host of interesting inquiries.

And for that reason, Bruscino was rather annoyed to find that Politifact had adjudicated the matter with a "Pants On Fire" rating. Byers pulls the most pertinent part of Bruscino's response:

However, I did think his questions to me were leading. Remember, Mr. Jacobson asked "(2) What context does this ignore (changing/more lethal technology, changed geopolitical needs, etc)?," which both assumes and implies to the interviewees that Romney ignored those specific contexts.

And that's the thing: the debate moderators didn't have anything to say or ask about those "specific contexts." Let's go to transcript:

KELLY EVANS: Governor Romney, when President Obama signed the National Defense Authorization Act into law, he enacted a provision allowing him to indefinitely detain American citizens in U.S. military custody, many, including Congressman Paul, have called it unconstitutional. At the same time the bill did provide money to continue funding U.S. troops. Governor Romney, as president, would you have signed the National Defense Act as written?

ROMNEY: Yes, I would have. And I do believe that it is appropriate to have in our nation the capacity to detain people who are threats to this country, who are members of al Qaeda. Look, you have every right in this country to protest and to express your views on a wide range of issues but you don’t have a right to join a group that is killed Americans, and has declared war against America. That's treason. In this country we have a right to take those people and put them in jail.

And I recognize, I recognize that in a setting where they are enemy combatants and on our own soil, that could possibly be abused. There are a lot of things I think this president does wrong, lots of them, but I don't think he is going to abuse this power and I that if I were president I would not abuse this power. And I can also tell you that in my view you have to choose people who you believe have sufficient character not to abuse the power of the presidency and to make sure that we do not violate our constitutional principles.
But let me tell you, people who join al Qaeda are not entitled to rights of due process under our normal legal code. They are entitled instead to be treated as enemy combatants.

EVANS: Senator Santorum …

ROMNEY: I've still got time. So as long as I still have time I just want to go back and agree with what Governor Perry said, the most extraordinary thing that’s happened with this military authorization is the president is planning on cutting $1 trillion out of military spending. Our Navy is smaller than it’s been since 1917. Our Air Force is smaller and older than any time since 1947.

We are cutting our number of troops. We are not giving the veterans the care they deserve. We simply cannot continue to cut our Department of Defense budget if we are going to remain the hope of the Earth. And I will fight to make sure America retains military superiority.

EVANS: Senator Santorum, 30 seconds to you, sir. Same question would you have signed, as president would you have signed the National Defense Authorization Act into law as written?

So, the line in question was a throwaway line in the middle of some extended remarks on the NDAA authorization. None of the debate moderators seized on the moment to ask follow-ups specifically related to that claim. (By the time the moderators came back to Romney, the topic had switched to Social Security.)

Also, let's note: Mitt Romney never lays the blame for Navy and Air Force force levels at Obama's feet. He is complaining that "the president is planning [note the future tense] on cutting $1 trillion out of military spending." The more misleading thing here is that Romney seems to be attributing the coming "trigger cuts," born from the failure of the Super Committee, on Obama, when these were actually part of a mutually agreed-to deal between all parties.

And until Romney is probed more deeply on the matter, it's impossible to conclude that he is lying. In the first place, the statement was technically accurate. But more to the point, we need to find out what Romney would do to rebuild the Navy and Air Force to levels he deems appropriate, and to what task would those resources be put to. We could stand to learn his opinion on future threats and the means by which they are thwarted. And Romney could have answers to these questions that make sense. Go back and read Bruscino's response again -- he leaves the door open to the possibility that these force levels are not ideal, and that boosting them could be a net positive.

Or, Romney could just be deploying that line as a means of painting Obama as being soft on our enemies, fingers crossed that the context will not be explored and that follow-up questions will never be asked. It's possible, and given the fact that the Romney campaign have essentially said that lying and taking things out of context is fair, welcomed, and to be expected, it's likely. Until we hear more from Romney, we can't adjudicate whether he's intending to mislead, inform, or raise what could be an interesting, fruitful debate. For what it's worth, Politifact only has this to say on that matter:

In addition, Romney appears to be using the statistic as a critique of the current administration, while experts tell us that both draw-downs and buildups of military equipment occur over long periods of time and can't be pegged to one president. Put it all together and you have a statement that, despite being close to accurate in its numbers, uses those numbers in service of a ridiculous point. Pants on Fire.

The operative phrase, however, is "appears to be." Seems to me that the standards for ruling that a statement is pants aflame, it needs to be based on something more definitive than appearances.

Bruscino says that Romney "could be given credit for a half-truth, even if the context complicates the matter" and I have to say that I agree. But more to the point, this highlights the sort of cloddishness that Jim Newell cited when he warned that Politifact was becoming like the "credit ratings agencies":

They are just companies that employ credit risk analysts. But since they devised a similarly easily digestible alphanumeric code -- AAA, BBB, AA+, whatever -- and people have bought into this, they wield immense centralized power over the entire world. But that doesn't mean they won't screw up.

Maybe Romney's pants are on fire. But Politifact hasn't yet done the work to make that determination.

READ THE WHOLE THING:
PolitiFact's art of interpretation [Dylan Byers @ Politico]

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