Words matter -- We pay close attention to the specific wording of a claim. Is it a precise statement? Does it contain mitigating words or phrases?
--Principles of PolitiFact and the Truth-O-Meter
|(clipped from PolitiFact.com)|
The fact checkers:
Angie Drobnic Holan: writer, researcher
Bill Adair: editor
What a contrast to the PolitiFact piece on Mitt Romney I published yesterday.
The Romney story seized on a minor detail supporting an accurate underlying point. The Obama story focuses on the minor point while ignoring a highly doubtful underlying point. Both men phrased their minor points sloppily but Romney gets condemnation while the president gets a pass.
Let's get into the specifics:
With much glee, Democrats have seized on old audio recordings of President Ronald Reagan talking about the debt limit. House Democrats have even posted a snippet on YouTube.So far so good. The quotation is legitimate. The question is the use to which it is applied.
Here's what the Gipper had to say on the matter back in 1986:
"Unfortunately, Congress consistently brings the government to the edge of default before facing its responsibility. This brinkmanship threatens the holders of government bonds and those who rely on Social Security and veterans benefits. Interest rates would skyrocket, instability would occur in financial markets, and the federal deficit would soar. The United States has a special responsibility to itself and the world to meet its obligations. It means we have a well-earned reputation for reliability and credibility -- two things that set us apart from much of the world."
President Barack Obama, meanwhile, invoked Reagan when he answered a question from NPR on why negotiations to increase the debt ceiling have taken so long.Reagan supposedly said it would be irresponsible to allow the full faith and credit of the United States to be impaired in any way. Remember Obama's phrasing, because PolitiFact supposedly pays close attention to the specific wording of a claim.
Obama said it was more than just one thing.
"You've got some members of the Republican Party who've been downplaying the consequences of default. The irony is, you know, Ronald Reagan, I think, when he was president, repeatedly talked about how irresponsible it would be to allow the full faith and credit of the United States to be impaired in any kind of way. I think that there is some politics. And compromising with me, among some Republican leaders, is bad politics for them," he said on July 21, 2011.
And let the spin begin:
Intrigued by the audio files going around the Internet, we decided to fact-check Obama's statement that Reagan repeatedly talked about avoiding debt limit showdowns.Those paying close attention to the specific wording of Obama's Reagan argument note the absence of the words "debt," "limit" and "shutdowns." The PolitiFact team is ignoring Obama's specific wording and replacing it with their own very liberal (using the term advisedly) paraphrase. Obama said Reagan was against subjecting U.S. credit to a threat "in any kind of way" if we pay attention to what Obama said. That could certainly include the debt ceiling, but let's refrain from jumping to that conclusion just yet.
Reagan made the comments quoted above in a radio address to the nation on Sept. 26, 1987. But Reagan also laid out other principles for Congress in that address: cut spending, leave the defense budget alone, don't raise taxes. (Read the entire address via the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library.)Reagan's address made it clear that he would sign the bill sent to him by Congress because he believed it was necessary to raise the debt limit. Reagan's statement did not castigate Democrats prior to the passage of a bill designed to raise the debt ceiling.
Looking for more examples of Reagan "repeatedly" warning about the debt ceiling,we also ran across a letter Reagan wrote in 1983 to then-Senate Majority Leader Howard Baker, R-Tenn., asking for help. (The Washington Post posted the letter to its website.)PolitiFact accurately describes Reagan's letter as encouraging Baker to pass an increase in the debt limit.
But is that the same as warning against harming the full faith and credit of the U.S. government "in any kind of way"?
PolitiFact unaccountably fails to mention the key difference between the scenario today and the situations during Reagan's presidency: As things currently stand, the U.S. credit rating may be harmed regardless of raising the credit ceiling.
That's right. Moody's, among others, has warned that the U.S. faces a review of its credit rating if it merely fails to demonstrate a significant attempt to rein in its rapidly growing debt:
Unlike the 1980s, the current milieu presents a threat of a credit rating hit even if the debt ceiling is raised. Only a middle ground involving a significant cut to runaway spending and a higher debt ceiling would address Reagan's supposed concern with "any kind" of threat to U.S. credit.The U.S. government’s Aaa bond rating will come under pressure in the future unless additional measures are taken to reduce projected record budget deficits, according to Moody’s Investors Service Inc.Bloomberg.com
That doesn't sound so good for the president. We need PolitiSpin from PolitiFact:
Interestingly, we also found statements from Reagan supporting changes to the tax code that increased revenues. That's a major sticking point in today's negotiations between Obama and Republicans. In a lengthy 1982 speech, he noted that some people called the bill he favored "the largest tax increase in history." But Reagan said it was tax reform, not a tax increase.Note that PolitiFact has already admitted that its first citation of Reagan included his insistence on no new taxes. Now Drobnic Holan and Adair make Reagan into Robin standing as ally to the tax-increasing Batman Obama.
By all means, read the 1982 speech. PolitiFact reports Reagan's words inaccurately. He described the bulk of the revenues as tax reform but also admitted to allowing new taxes for cigarettes and telephone service. But he reminded people that in light of earlier tax cuts they were still paying less and that the tax increase involved a 3 for 1 deal: $3 in spending cuts for every $1 increase in taxes. Is that the deal Obama has proposed?
PolitiFact also used Reagan biographer Lou Cannon to support Obama's point. Cannon's contribution is sufficiently represented in the conclusion to the story:
Obama said that Reagan "repeatedly talked about how irresponsible it would be to allow the full faith and credit of the United States to be impaired in any kind of way." We found two examples and a Reagan expert said they typified his approach to the federal debt. Reagan talked about other things more, like keeping taxes low and funding defense. But his remarks on the debt ceiling are real and apparently heartfelt. We rate Obama's statement Mostly True.1) Note the logical break between Obama's interpretation of Reagan and PolitiFact's two supposed examples. As we saw above, neither example addresses "any kind of way" U.S. credit might face a threat. They address only the credit ceiling.
2) Cannon, rather than agreeing that Obama presented Reagan accurately in context, says the two examples accurately represent Reagan. Those examples have Reagan acting in a way that preserves the U.S. credit rating while fighting to cut spending and keep taxes low--not a good match for the Obama administration's role in the debt ceiling debate.
3) As noted at the outset, the PolitiFact team ignores the specific wording of Obama's claim and replaces it with spin. The situations now and then are different. If Reagan was concerned with any threat to the U.S. credit rating then he would all the more champion spending cuts where making the spending cut helped avoid the possibility of damaging the U.S. credit rating.
Obama tried to cite Reagan in support of the Democratic Party's position on the debt ceiling situation. Obama's specific wording misrepresented Reagan and Obama's underlying point finds no significant support in Reagan's position when the latter is considered in context.
Another disgraceful performance by PolitiFact.
Angie Dronic Holan: F
Bill Adair: F
At the risk of sounding like Vicini, I find it inconceivable that the same editor could handle the Romney story and this one and not find something deeply amiss. The tag "journalists reporting badly" applies.