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Politics

Obama and Romney both strayed from facts in debate

Obama and Romney both strayed from facts in debate
Reporters watch the final minutes of the debate between President Obama and Republican rival Mitt Romney at the University of Denver. Both candidates kept fact-checkers busy.
(Doug Pensinger, Getty Images)

Aside from Mitt Romney’s threat to defund Big Bird, the most commonly cited quip in his debate with President Obama may have been: “Mr. President, you’re entitled as the president to your own airplane and to your own house, but not to your own facts.”

The remark could have applied almost equally to Romney, who charters a private campaign plane, has no shortage of houses and, like Obama, displayed a flexible attitude toward matters of fact Wednesday night in the first presidential debate. Independent fact-checkers came down harder on the Republican challenger than on the incumbent president. But both sides were guilty of, at best, twisting facts for political gain.

Here is a look at some of the major issues discussed in the debate and how the candidates’ statements comport with the truth:

Healthcare

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Obama, whose 2008 pledge to reduce insurance premiums is unfulfilled, continued to overstate the impact of the new healthcare law, claiming erroneously that premium increases had slowed in recent years. In fact, the average employee share of an employer-provided health plan jumped from $3,515 in 2009 to $4,316 in 2012, an increase of more than 22%, according to a survey from the Kaiser Family Foundation and the Health Research & Educational Trust. That is up from an increase of 18% between 2006 and 2009.

But Romney made more false claims about the healthcare law and his own plans to replace it.

The GOP nominee rehashed an oft-debunked claim by conservatives that the law includes a new government board that is “going to tell people ultimately what kind of treatments they can have.”

The panel — known as the Independent Payment Advisory Board — is instead charged with recommending ways to control Medicare spending if it increases too rapidly. The independent experts on the board can suggest cuts to how much the federal government pays healthcare providers, but are explicitly prohibited from cutting benefits or rationing care.

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Romney also threw out several dubious and discredited studies about the impact of the law, including a survey by consulting giant McKinsey that claimed 30% of employers would drop health coverage. McKinsey was forced to retract the report after admitting that many respondents didn’t actually manage health benefits for their companies.

At the same time, Romney misrepresented his own healthcare proposals, claiming, for example that people with preexisting medical conditions are covered in his plan. In fact, Romney has said only sick Americans who currently have insurance will be guaranteed coverage in the future.

— Noam N. Levey

Taxes

Obama’s claim that Romney has proposed a $5-trillion tax cut has its roots in a study by the nonpartisan Tax Policy Center. The center said Romney’s proposal for a 20% across-the-board tax cut added up to $5 trillion over 10 years — the typical time frame for evaluating a tax change. But Obama’s comment entirely overlooked Romney’s repeated assertions that the net result would be “revenue neutral” — in other words, by eliminating deductions, he would wind up with no net cut in taxes.

Romney’s defense, however, is problematic because he doesn’t provide enough information to fully evaluate how his tax plans would work. Moreover, in the past, he has repeatedly said that he intends to cut taxes.

In discussing the deductions he would cut, Romney proposed a cap of $25,000 or $50,000 on deductions that would get lower for wealthier taxpayers, until the very wealthiest are barred from taking any deductions.

Romney’s idea could work, said J.D. Foster, a senior fellow at the conservative Heritage Foundation. But he said it’s impossible to know how with the information at hand. “This is one of those puzzles that, unless you have all of the pieces, you can’t figure out how any of the pieces fit together,” he said.

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Joseph Rosenberg, a research associate at the Tax Policy Center, said analysts in his office believe the plan would inevitably benefit the wealthy, who tend to get less benefit from deductions than middle-income people. Given that, eliminating deductions “can’t fully offset the tax cuts that he’s described.”

— Mitchell Landsberg

Education

Romney defended his record on education by noting at least twice that Massachusetts, where he served as governor from 2003 to 2007, is “No. 1 in the nation.”

Massachusetts has been the top-ranked state for the last four years on the National Assessment of Educational Progress, a test given to a sample of students nationwide. Massachusetts also has been praised for its rigorous academic standards.

The state has the advantage of higher funding than many states and, compared with California, for example, has a less challenging student population, in terms of family income, parent education levels and native English speakers.

Obama said his education reforms were “starting to show gains.” Such gains would be hard to document. There are rising test scores in many states, but it’s difficult to link these to Obama administration programs. The president has indeed favored aggressive reforms in education, but most of them are still in process.

— Howard Blume

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Social Security and unemployment

Obama said that Social Security was “structurally sound,” despite projections that benefits must be cut or taxes raised in order to keep the program solvent. If lawmakers take no action to stabilize Social Security, the program’s trust funds will run out of money in 2034, the Congressional Budget Office projects.

Romney twice stated inaccurately in the debate that there were “23 million people out of work.” The most recent figures released by the Bureau of Labor Statistics show there are actually 12.5 million unemployed Americans actively seeking a job and 2.6 million who were no longer looking for one.

Romney appeared to be combining those numbers with the 8 million part-time workers who have been unable to find a full-time job. Romney came closer to the truth when he said, “We’ve got 23 million people out of work or stopped looking for work in this country” — but still overstated the number by 8 million people.

— Michael Finnegan

Green energy

Obama did not challenge Romney’s assertion that his administration had given "$90 billion in breaks” to the green-energy sector in a single year, but the exact source of that information is unclear.

Obama has backed renewable energy investments more than any previous president, creating loan, grant and tax programs intended to spur solar, wind and other nonconventional sources of energy to help combat global warming and provide energy security.

But disclosures on the Treasury and Energy departments’ websites put the total investments far below $90 billion. Only $29 billion is clearly identifiable as going to renewable projects, and that covered more than one year.

The massive stimulus bill contained a range of funding for energy conservation and programs to improve energy efficiency, which some experts have estimated could total as much as $90 billion. But with respect to specific government grants and support to the renewable energy industry, the funding has been much less.

The most direct assistance the federal government has provided comes in the form of the Treasury Department’s 1603 grant program, which gives back 30% of the value of qualifying renewable energy investments to the owners of the projects. So far, the program, funded by the recovery act, has paid out $13 billion to about 45,000 projects.

The Energy Department also has several loan guarantee programs that have helped fund renewable-energy projects. A total of $34.5 billion has been guaranteed, but that includes $10 billion for nuclear energy and $8.5 billion for advanced vehicle development, leaving about $16 billion for renewable-energy projects.

Another possible source of government assistance that Romney could have counted is the accelerated depreciation that was allowed until this year on renewable energy projects. The program allowed owners to write off the cost of renewable projects against federal income taxes in a single year. There are no authoritative estimates yet of what those write-offs amounted to, and in some cases the project investors have not yet filed their income tax returns. At most, they could reach $15 billion. On the other hand, nearly all types of investments are deductible expenses from revenue that is subject to federal corporate income tax.

If only the loans and grants were counted, they would amount to $29 billion. If accelerated depreciation were thrown in, it could boost the total to $54 billion — still far short of $90 billion.

— Ralph Vartabedian


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