Viewers, beware. Presidential debates, sad to say, aren’t always exercises in scrupulous political accuracy or honesty.
Fact-checkers usually tag dubious claims a day or two later. But here, drawing on three of my favorite truth-squadders — FactCheck.org, PolitiFact.com, and the Washington Post’s Fact Checker — is a day-of-the-debate guide to arm unwary viewers against false attacks.
You may well hear Barack Obama assert that Mitt Romney would raise taxes on the middle class to pay for tax cuts for the wealthy. Zounds, you may say: What politician in his right mind would propose that?
Romney hasn’t, of course. That charge is cantilevered off a critique the nonpartisan Tax Policy Center did of the Republican nominee’s $5 trillion tax-cut proposal. Romney says he will pay for his 20 percent across-the-board income-tax reduction by closing loopholes and deductions, but has stipulated that he won’t target breaks important to the middle class.
That’s impossible, say the center’s experts, whose careful analysis concluded that offsetting the cost of Romney’s new tax cuts for upper earners that way would require hitting loopholes and deductions for the middle class as well, thereby raising their taxes.
But there are obviously other ways out of that fiscal box. Romney could scale back his proposed tax cut. Or he could try to make larger spending cuts to help offset the new tax cuts. (That said, he has already called for large, mostly unspecified, reductions in spending). So this charge is unfair. Still, it is fair to observe that Romney has offered no details about how he’d pay for his tax cut and that the fiscal math just doesn’t work.
The Republican equivalent of that claim is something you may hear from Romney: Obama has gutted the welfare work requirement. Sometimes that charge is accompanied by the assertion that recipients will now be able to receive benefits for doing nothing. Not so. As any number of fact-checkers have noted, all the Obama administration has done is agree to waive the work requirement for states that want to experiment with more effective ways of transitioning recipients into the workforce. Requests for exemptions will be evaluated on a state-by-state basis, with a requirement that states have a realistic plan to boost welfare-to-work numbers by 20 percent.
You may hear the president say, as several of his campaign ads have said, that Romney backs or has backed banning abortion even in cases of rape, incest, or when the mother’s life was at risk. Now, the Republican Party platform does contain language calling for a human life constitutional amendment, some versions of which would have that effect. Still, Romney has repeatedly said that he favors exemptions in cases of rape, incest, and where a pregnancy endangers a woman’s life.
Another favorite Romney charge is that Obama, early in his term, went around the world apologizing for America. Obama did give some speeches that read like not-so-oblique criticisms of George W. Bush’s foreign policy. But the idea that he has apologized for America simply doesn’t pass muster.
Finally, a word on fiscal affairs.
One regular conservative charge is that Obama has increased the federal debt by $5 trillion. That makes it sound as though the increase in red ink results from a massive surge of new spending under Obama. But before he even took office in the midst of a worsening recession, the Congressional Budget Office was projecting a $1.2 trillion shortfall for 2009.
It’s hard to say with precision how much of the new debt Obama should own, but it’s clear what the big drivers of that debt have been. The Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, a liberal think tank well-regarded for its fiscal analyses, says the single biggest contributor is the Bush-era tax cuts, followed by depressed revenues from the still-sluggish economy. War costs and Obama’s stimulus each contribute about 15 percent.
Now, Romney may argue that Obama should have cut spending to the level of revenues. But in slow economic times, that wouldn’t be wise. Last spring, Romney acknowledged as much when asked why he wasn’t planning steep budget cuts for the first year of his presidency.
“If you take a trillion dollars, for instance, out of the first year of the federal budget, that would shrink GDP over 5 percent,” he said. “That is by definition throwing us into recession or depression.”
Here’s hoping this helps you sort fact from fiction as Obama and Romney go toe to toe.
Scot Lehigh can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter at @GlobeScotLehigh.