By Isaac Butler
Ezra Klein has a post up at his WaPo digs talking about the Ryan convention speech. It's a facinating document as to the problems confronting the "professional left" as they-- as a result of their success- become more and more intertwined with mainstream journalism.
It's worth reading the whole thing, but the basic thrust of it is that Klein worked overtime-- I'd thought about calling this post Klein Agonistes-- to find a "balanced" way to report on Ryan's speech. He wanted to, talking Ryan's arguments on his own terms, search out a way to list what was true and false about it. He fine-toothed the speech looking for more factual claims:
I sat down to read it again, this time with the explicit purpose of finding claims we could add to the “true” category. And I did find one. He was right to say that the Obama administration has been unable to correct the housing crisis... But I also came up with two more “false” claims. So I read the speech again. And I simply couldn’t find any other major claims or criticisms that were true.
I want to stop here and say that even the definition of “true” that we’re using is loose. “Legitimate” might be a better word. The search wasn’t for arguments that were ironclad. It was just for arguments — for claims about Obama’s record — that were based on a reasonable reading of the facts, and that weren’t missing obviously key context.
Ryan’s claims weren’t even arguably true. You simply can’t say the president hasn’t released a deficit reduction plan. The plan is right here. You simply can’t say the president broke his promise to keep your GM plant open. The decision to close the plant was made before he entered office — and, by the way, the guy at the top of your ticket opposed the auto bailout. You simply can’t argue that the Affordable Care Act was a government takeover of the health-care system. My doctor still works for Kaiser Permanente, a private company that the government does not own. You simply can’t say that Obama, who was willing to follow historical precedent and sign a clean debt ceiling increase, caused the S&P downgrade, when S&P clearly said it was due to congressional gridlock and even wrote that it was partly due to the GOP’s dogmatic position on taxes. [etc. also emphasis added is mine]
Basically, Romney and Ryan have been lying about their record, their sports achievements, their goals for the country, their proposed budgets, Obama's biography and Obama's record for months now. Yet Klein, a member of the "professional left" feels the need to bend over backwards to create a new definition of what "truth" is, after which the speech still fails the test. And after all this agonizing, we get:
Quite simply, the Romney campaign isn’t adhering to the minimum standards required for a real policy conversation. Even if you bend over backward to be generous to them — as the Tax Policy Center did when they granted the Romney campaign a slew of essentially impossible premises in order to evaluate their tax plan — you often find yourself forced into the same conclusion: This doesn’t add up, this doesn’t have enough details to be evaluated, or this isn’t true.
I don’t like that conclusion. It doesn’t look “fair” when you say that. We’ve been conditioned to want to give both sides relatively equal praise and blame, and the fact of the matter is, I would like to give both sides relatively equal praise and blame...
It's hard to imagine the Ezra Klein who wrote for The American Prospect writing this. Which leads me to a series of questions:
(1) Is this just a rhetorical gambit to impress people who like it when you sound all pointy-bearded and series and you give people who disagree with you a lot of benefit of the doubt before coming to the (sad, sad) conclusion that they're wrong? In other words, is this about phrasing this argument in a way more centrist (and right wing) readers will hear it? Or
(2) Is this really how Klein things now? If it is really how Klein thinks now, and we can't imagine him writing this at the American Prospect, what does this say about the (unconscious) ways that the source of one's paycheck and the pressure of one's editors changes us as writers?
(3) Or is it that now that Klein is in a position where he has access to and regularly interviews people on the other side of the aisle including Paul Ryan, he personally likes and respects them enough that he finds himself unable to just openly call them liars?
I think that what is going on here is some mix of all three. I don't think Klein is a bad guy, I actually think he's great at his job, and his outlining of his struggling with editing a piece about Ryan's lies is an example of why he's great at his job. At the same time, I think the pose of fair-mindedness is, at times, geniuinely harmful to our national conversation. And this kind of agonizing about Ryan's clear lying about just about everything is an example of that pose.