Lies, Damn Lies and Nail Polish

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In what is likely the peak for his post-convention polling bump, Mitt Romney yesterday edged ahead of Barack Obama in the composite polling at the Pollster.com website by a scant half a percentage point, at 46.6% to 46.1%.  This is the first time Romney has led in Pollster’s aggregate poll against Obama dating back to June 2011 and the start of the election cycle.  While perhaps symbolically important to some, however, Romney’s “lead” does not represent much if any real change in the election polling – the race continues to be close to a dead heat.  It is also further evidence that Romney received a smaller than historically average polling bump from the Republican Convention.  The RealClearPolitics composite poll, where Obama’s “lead” has shrunk to .1%, tells a similar story.

Romney’s Pollster.com “lead” may prove short lived, however, as President Obama is likely to get his own small bump from the Democratic Convention, which began yesterday with a night of speechifying headlined by Michelle Obama.  For what it’s worth, I thought the First Lady gave a very impressive performance.  Most of today’s punditry, however, focused more on her dress and her nail polish.  These are, evidently, issues of national importance.

Tonight we get to see the Big Dog himself, as former President Bill Clinton takes the stage.  I don’t expect him to be given a very long leash by the Obama team – they will want to make sure he sticks to the convention schedule (always a worry with Bill), and doesn’t talk to any chairs.  There has to be some trepidation among the Obama people that Bill is going to steal some of the convention thunder.  It is a sign of just how close this race is that despite these worries, Team Obama is asking Clinton to help out.  Frankly, they need him, and his ability to rally working class Democrats back into the fold.

One thing I am interested in seeing is how carefully his, and other convention speeches, are “fact-checked” by the denizens of the twitterverse and national media.  It is clear to me that the partisan pundits are now using twitter to conduct an initial fact-check of speeches in real time.  In so doing, they are establishing a first-take news narrative that the mainstream media, including the various fact-checking sites, feels obliged to respond to. Several of you, in your comments to a previous blog, argued that this instant “crowd sourcing” is a useful check on politicians’ tendency to stretch the truth both by embellishing their own record and distorting their opponents’.  This is a point that bloggers are making as well.

I confess that I remain skeptical.  As I noted in my discussion of the media reaction to the Ryan speech, it would be one thing if the ‘fact checkers” limited themselves to catching obvious errors of fact.  But in Ryan’s case they went beyond that to correct “misimpressions” created by his speech.  This is a worrisome trend, I think, because it presumes there is a “truth” out there that the often partisan fact-checkers can unambiguously identify.   So, many of my colleagues were up in arms when Ryan, in his convention speech, criticized the President for not actively supporting the recommendations of the Bowles-Simpson bipartisan deficit reduction commission.   As they correctly pointed out, Ryan was a member of that commission, and he voted along with the other Republican members against its recommendations.   My fact-checking colleagues think Ryan should have pointed this out in his speech.  But while what Ryan said may have been hypocritical and self-serving, it wasn’t factually wrong.  “Fine,” you respond, “but it is important that we identify self-serving and hypocritical statements.”  It seems to me, however, that fact-checkers are stepping onto a slippery slope when they go from identifying clear falsehoods to taking on this additional interpretive task.  Last night Ted Strickland gave a rousing speech defending Obama’s decision to bail out the auto companies. He also noted that “Mitt Romney proudly wrote an op-ed entitled, ‘Let Detroit Go Bankrupt.’  If he had had his way, devastation would have cascaded from Michigan to Ohio and across the nation. Mitt Romney never saw the point of building something when he could profit from tearing it down. “  It is true that Romney wrote an editorial opposing the auto bailout.  But I suspect he would argue it is misleading to claim that “if he had had his way”, economic calamity would have resulted.  Should someone correct the misleading impression created by Strickland’s assertion?   Or should we chalk it up to the usual rhetorical excesses of convention speeches?

Or, consider the question “Are you better off today than you were four years ago?”  I can think of multiple, factually correct but quite different answers to that question.  For instance, do you think – as many economists assert – that the Obama-backed stimulus bill averted a worse economic calamity?  If I’m Obama, I’m going to argue yes.   But is that the “truth” – or a self-serving claim?  Or both?  I don’t see how the fact-checkers can expect to rule on this one.

My point is that I’m not sure I want a bevy of partisan-motivated tweeters telling me what is the “correct” answer to this, or other,  political questions.  But that’s exactly what we invite when we fall prey to the notion that there is an undeniable ‘truth” out there, and that it is the fact-checkers job to tell us what it is.  Perhaps the one undeniable fact is that when it comes to political claims, one person’s “truth” is often another’s self-serving assertion.

By the way, that was a Tracy Reese dress the First Lady wore last night, and it worked perfectly with her bluish-grey nail polish.   And that’s a fact.

4 Responses to Lies, Damn Lies and Nail Polish

  1. Scott Monje says:

    “But I suspect he would argue it is misleading to claim that “if he had had his way”, economic calamity would have resulted.”

    Strickland was highlighting the likely consequences (as he sees them) of Romney’s preferred policy. You can’t falsify that by saying Romney didn’t intend it to be calamitous.

  2. Matthew Dickinson says:

    Indeed. That is precisely my point. Much like some of Ryan’s claims that were “fact checked”, it may have been misleading and self-serving, but it is hard to say it was factually incorrect!

  3. Kendall Kaut says:

    Yep fact checking for the most part is terrible. Unless it’s clear that someone is telling an incorrect fact, “The CBO says the healthcare bill will cost $10 trillion over a decade,” then there is no reason to test the validity of statements. If the Washington Post and other groups want to engage in examinations of statements they view as hypocritical they should focus more on individuals who discuss statements like Paul Ryan’s on Jansville or Ted Strickland’s on the auto bailout. In the meantime I will take any macro focus on who has the most Pinocchios to be useless.

  4. Ted Brader says:

    Well put, Matt.

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