Paul Ryan on GM shut down in Janesville: How does political theater improve our economy?

Last night at the Republican National Convention and in his stump speeches VP nominee Paul Ryan misquotes President Obama as a way to infer that the President is to blame for shutting down Janesville’s GM plant. You can view the whole speech here, and the part I reference begins about 5 minutes in. Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker is bolstering that narrative, as you can see in this interview.

From the transcript of Paul’s speech at the RNC convention:

My home state voted for President Obama. When he talked about change, many people liked the sound of it, especially in Janesville, where we were about to lose a major factory.

A lot of guys I went to high school with worked at that GM plant. Right there at that plant, candidate Obama said: “I believe that if our government is there to support you … this plant will be here for another hundred years.” That’s what he said in 2008.

Well, as it turned out, 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.

What then-candidate Obama actually said is:

“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. “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 hundred years.”

CNN Fact Check points out:

…to fairly evaluate Obama’s statement, at least two pieces of context — missing from Ryan’s account — would be useful: First, that Obama wasn’t telling this plant that he’d save it from a pending closure. He wasn’t addressing a plant that he knew to be closing, because the closure announcement didn’t come until four months after his speech. Second, although the plant’s last bit of production stopped early in Obama’s presidency and the plant remains closed, the closure was planned before Obama became president.

What’s more, then presidential-candidate Obama was talking about the part of his economic plan that calls for government to support the retooling of manufacturing for 21st century products, in this case greener cars.

While our film is not about Paul Ryan (he doesn’t appear in the final version of the film but you can view our footage with him), it is about how the community of Janesville tries to recover from the aftermath of the recession and particularly the shut down of Janesville’s century-old GM plant. The consequences of that plant shutting down continue to play out today and are gravely serious. Unemployment skyrocketed. Families (like Gayle and Angie‘s in our film) were forced to split up in order for the breadwinners to find decent-paying jobs in states far from home. An economic development effort (led by Rock County 5.0 and co-chaired by Mary Willmer and Diane Hendricks) attempted to woo new companies to town and raised real questions about what a good job is — does it matter if the days of $28/hour are gone? Is that just a reality we have to live with as Mary says: “those days are over, it’s forced us all to sharpen our saws and get a new perspective”. Or can economic development efforts include the perspective of workers. Labor did not have a seat on the Rock County 5.0 board.

What you see in our film is a depiction of good people trying to reinvent their lives and their town’s economy. Some are Democrats. Some are Republicans. That’s fine — that’s American freedom and democracy. But when politics derails the effort to find jobs and unite the community even as the stakes are so high, when Governor Scott Walker’s bill to end collective bargaining for public employees pits leaders against each other at a time when it is far more crucial that they work together — something’s wrong.

Ideological orthodoxy scuttles genuine attempts to rebuild our economy and create decent jobs that will sustain the middle class. Governor Walker said it best about one of our film’s subjects, Tim Cullen, a state senator trying to negotiate a compromise to the collective bargaining fiasco. On the phone with a caller he thought was David Koch, he dismisses Cullen for being a pragmatist, not an ideologue.

screen shot from the movie "As Goes Janesville"

Governor Scott Walker thinking he’s talking to David Koch

So when I watch Paul Ryan distort the facts about President Obama and the closing of Janesville’s plant, and I think of the plight of the people in our film — the deep pain and anguish of laid-off workers and the huge investment town leaders made to get their economy going again — I feel demoralize, and a little surprised, frankly.

I’ve met Paul many times. While he’s not in our final version of the film, I interviewed and filmed with him on several occasions. What’s more, my wife’s family and his family know each other. His mom was at our engagement party. His dad and my father-in-law were law partners. I like Paul and respect his opinions on the economy. But I’m disappointed that after he spent so many years critiquing his colleagues for “playing politics” with numbers and facts, that he would resort to the same. After all, there are so many genuine differences between his party and the Democrats, why omit or twist facts to serve a rhetorical point, especially about the GM plant closing that caused so many people in Janesville great hardship.

Whether you agree or disagree with Paul’s policies, one thing that’s undeniable about his career is that he’s brash and bold when it comes to the courage to say difficult things publicly and adopt unpopular positions, like the way he parted ways with his party on the auto bailout, solicited federal help for his district despite his ideological proclamations, or his tough stand on “crony capitalism.”

Ryan’s not alone, of course. While I was filming in Janesville I also witnessed the Obama administration lead the town down a path of promise that led nowhere when it dispatched its “auto-czar” Ed Montgomery and marshaled agencies to help the town deal with the fallout of the plant closure. It was a charade. I watched and filmed as organizations all over town came together to prepare for a meeting with Montgomery. Then a few days before his arrival, I found a press release from Georgetown University announcing that Montgomery was being appointed Dean of the Georgetown Public Policy Institute. He would not be able to follow up on the meeting, and his staff dropped the ball afterwards. A new car czar was not appointed for almost a year. Janesville’s leaders jumped through hoops and wasted a lot of time to prepare for an historic meeting that yielded next to nothing.

Maybe it’s pollyannish of me to expect better from political leaders. But I do.

In the end, narrative is everything. Paul is telling his Janesville story. Now we are telling ours.

We are releasing our film to the country (please check our screening schedule) and I look forward to the same scrutiny that I’m offering now with respect to Paul’s speech and what he says on the stump. America is still trying the right itself, and my belief is that we can’t do it if we let ideological orthodoxy trump efforts to find common ground and work together to turn our communities and nation’s economy around. We are all in this together.

- Brad Lichtenstein