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Paul Ryan Address: Convention Speech Built On Demonstrably Misleading Assertions

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Paul Ryan used misleading assertions in his address at the Republican convention Wednesday.
Paul Ryan used misleading assertions in his address at the Republican convention Wednesday.

TAMPA, Fla. -- Paul Ryan pledged Wednesday that if he and his running mate Mitt Romney were elected president, they would usher in an ethic of responsibility. The Wisconsin congressman and GOP vice presidential candidate repeatedly chided President Barack Obama for blaming the jobs and housing crises on his predecessor, saying that his habit of "forever shifting blame to the last administration, is getting old. The man assumed office almost four years ago -– isn’t it about time he assumed responsibility?"

Ryan then noted that Obama, while campaigning for president, promised that a GM plant in Wisconsin would not shut down. "That plant didn’t last another year. It is locked up and empty to this day. And that’s how it is in so many towns today, where the recovery that was promised is nowhere in sight," Ryan said.

Except Obama didn't promise that. And the plant closed in December 2008 -- while George W. Bush was president.

It was just one of several striking and demonstrably misleading elements of Ryan's much-anticipated acceptance speech. And it comes just days after Romney pollster Neil Newhouse warned, defending the campaign's demonstrably false ads claiming Obama removed work requirements from welfare, "We're not going to let our campaign be dictated by fact-checkers."

Ryan, for his part, slammed the president for not supporting a deficit commission report without mentioning that he himself had voted against it, helping to kill it.

He also made a cornerstone of his argument the claim that Obama "funneled" $716 billion out of Medicare to pay for Obamacare. But he didn't mention that his own budget plan relies on those very same savings.

Ryan also put responsibility for Standard & Poor's downgrade of U.S. government debt at Obama's doorstep. But he didn't mention that S&P itself, in explaining its downgrade, referred to the debt ceiling standoff. That process of raising the debt ceiling was only politicized in the last Congress, driven by House Republicans, led in the charge by Paul Ryan.

The credit rater also said it worried that Republicans would never agree to tax increases. “We have changed our assumption on [revenue] because the majority of Republicans in Congress continue to resist any measure that would raise revenues,” S&P wrote.

Jodie Layton, a convention goer from Utah watching the Ryan speech, said she was blown away by the vice presidential candidate. But she said she was surprised to hear that after his speech about taking responsibility, he'd pinned a Bush-era plant closing on Obama.

"It closed in December 2008?" she asked, making sure she heard a HuffPost reporter's question right. After a long pause, she said, "It's happening a lot on both sides. It's to be expected."

Ryan has referenced the GM plant before, and his attack was debunked by the Detroit News, which called it inaccurate. "In fact, Obama made no such promise and the plant halted production in December 2008, when President George W. Bush was in office," Detroit News reporter David Sherpardson wrote earlier this month. "Obama did speak at the plant in February 2008, and suggested that a government partnership with automakers could keep the plant open, but made no promises as Ryan suggested."

After the speech, CNN's political commentators focused mostly on Ryan's misstatements, demonstrating the degree to which they were evident.

Top Obama adviser David Axelrod jumped on the GM factory claim. "Again, Ryan blames Obama for a GM plant that closed under Bush. But then, they did say they wouldn't 'let fact checkers get in the way.'"

Ryan, however, appears to have made the calculation that the misleading won't hurt him with voters. He might be right. CNN's David Gergen, while acknowledging some "misstatements" in Ryan's address, suggested that pundits focus elsewhere. "But let's not forget that this was a speech about big ideas," he told his audience.

UPDATE:

For more on the closure process, which was announced in mid-2008, see the local Gazette Xtra. More than 2,000 Janesville GM workers were laid off immediately; another 57 stayed on until April 2009 as production wound down.

UPDATE: 8/30 --

Brendan Buck, a spokesman for Paul Ryan, defended the congressman's remarks in an email to The Huffington Post. “It’s President Obama who needs to explain his words," Buck said. "The facts are clear: when the GM plant went on standby the President told the people of Wisconsin he would ‘lead an effort to retool’ it and restart production. But when the bailout’s winners and losers were decided, Janesville ended up losing. The people of Wisconsin, like so many Americans, are still waiting for the President’s imaginary recovery.”

Buck is referring to an October 2008 Associated Press report which quotes then-candidate Barack Obama saying that if he's elected, he will "lead an effort to retool plants like the GM facility." That's different, of course, than saying he'd retool the plant itself, but it adds context to Ryan's argument.

Conservative media outlets have clashed with mainstream fact-checkers who have debunked Ryan's claim by noting that the plant didn't fully wind down until Obama was president in April 2009, when the final 57 workers were laid off.

Ryan's campaign, notably, is not reaching for that technicality to defend his claim. Instead it is arguing the broader point that when the plant closed is less important than the fact it has not re-opened.

Ryan, during his speech, referenced Obama's speech in Janesville in Feb. 2008.

“I know that General Motors received some bad news yesterday, and I know how hard your governor has fought to keep jobs in this plant. But I also know how much progress you’ve made—how many hybrids and fuel-efficient vehicles you’re churning out," Obama said at the time. “And I believe that if our government is there to support you and give you the assistance you need to re-tool and make this transition, that this plant will be here for another 100 years.”

Government support for the plant, however, was a big if -- and it wasn't an if that came through for the plant under the Bush administration. Romney, meanwhile, opposed the auto bailout, which puts the campaign in the awkward spot of criticizing Obama for not intervening enough in the private sector with government bailouts.

The Washington Post's Greg Sargent on Thursday interviewed a Ryan-supporting Wisconsin businessman who argued that the plant may have been unsalvageable even with significant government support.

"This morning, I spoke to a leading business official in Janesville, Wisconsin, who was at the center of efforts to save the GM plant — one who supports Paul Ryan — and he offered a nuanced version of the history that strains simplistic interpretations," Sargent reported. "The official, John Beckord, who heads the pro-business group Forward Janesville, makes two key points. First, that the market for the GM product in question collapsed much faster than anyone expected it would at the time of Obama’s speech. Second, that there is no telling whether the plant would have reopened, even if the economy had recovered faster."

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