Debate or Demonstrably Untrue? (…but not demonstrated)

Count me among those dismayed by President Obama’s performance in the first debate. (Ed Schultz and Chris Mathews at MSNBC were positively livid.)  If it had been tennis he missed smashing lob after lob back into Romney’s court.  My guess is one of two things: 1) he over-trained and was tight, insisting to himself he had to make points he and his team had decided on and trained for.  Instead of listening to Romney’s extreme changes of course and responding to them — “I am very glad to hear you say you you will not have a $5 trillion tax cut.  Should the voters simply forget your repeated promises to “permanently extend certain tax cuts that are scheduled to expire, cut taxes further, and offset part or all of the additional tax cuts by reducing or eliminating unspecified tax preferences?” — he dug down into his notes.  2) He was distracted by what is going on at the Turkey-Syria border where large caliber fire has been exchanged, and the Turkish Parliament has authorized such army response as is deemed necessary.  Tinderbox with enormous implications.

In any case, he’s got to do better in the next one.  Romney has put up some very fat targets.  Insisting that health care be left to each state — on the basis of a good template in Massachusetts– invites the slack-jawed question — Can North Dakota, Maine or Mississippi replicate Massachusetts? Really?  And if they fail?  Who steps in, at what cost, to ensure that the poor and sick who are taken care of in one state are not left in the streets in another? [Let’s talk about “states rights” in the fullness it deserves:  we could start with election equality, or schools, or actually, segregation.]

Romney’s blithe suggestion that if, in his imaginary free market, you don’t like one health insurer you can go get another, is ludicrous beyond description, as anyone who has gone through the annual “open period” of choosing between two or three (not dozens) of insurers knows: the fine print is impossible to understand; there are no apples and apples comparisons; the doctors within each network are different, and on and on.  Picking lettuce out at the supermarket is one thing, finding insurance and doctors under particular family medical conditions is a whole other universe — which Romney has shown us he knows nothing about.

To let Romney get away with saying with a big smile that ‘tax rates will go down and deductions will be closed’ without pushing him on specifics is to stand at mid-court and not even go after the ball.  Look, no one cares about  abstract ‘tax rates.’  What we care about is how much actual tax we are going to pay.  What percent of our income is going to be used for the general welfare?  I want mine used.  America is a great place to live because, on the whole, taxes are used for things that make life safer, more comfortable and easier to negotiate.  Nevertheless, I want to know: what am I paying, and what is the millionaire who, without question, benefits much more than I.  It doesn’t matter a bit to me if my tax rate goes from 20% to 15% if what I actually pay goes up because, for example, the home mortgage deduction is no longer allowed.  Romney has to be pressed on his cheerful use of smoke and mirrors to disguise what will actually happen to real people if his plans are implemented.

Romney Tax plan as explained at the Tax Policy Center.

Romney Budget as detailed at the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities

For the most part, Governor Romney has not outlined cuts in specific programs.  But if policy­ makers repealed health reform (the Affordable Care Act, or ACA) and exempted Social Security from cuts, as Romney has suggested, and cut Medicare, Medicaid, and all other entitlement and discretionary programs by the same percentage to meet Romney’s overall spending cap and defense spending target, then they would have to cut non-defense programs other than Social Security by 22 percent in 2016 and 34 percent in 2022 (see Figure 1).  If they exempted Medicare from cuts for this period, the cuts in other programs would have to be even more dramatic — 32 percent in 2016 and 53 percent in 2022.

If they applied these cuts proportionately, the cuts in programs such as veterans’ disability compensation, Supplemental Security Income (SSI) for poor elderly and disabled individuals, the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP, formerly food stamps), school lunches and other child nutrition programs, and unemployment compensation would cause the incomes of large numbers of households to fall below the poverty line.  Many who already are poor would become poorer.

The cuts in non-­defense discretionary programs — a spending category that covers a wide variety of public services such as elementary and secondary education, law enforcement, veterans’ health care, environmental protection, and bio-medical research — would come on top of the substantial cuts in this part of the budget that are already in law, due to the discretionary funding caps in last year’s Budget Control Act (BCA).  By 2022, the cuts under Governor Romney’s budget proposals would shrink non-defense discretionary spending — which, over the past 50 years, has averaged 3.9 percent of GDP and never fallen below 3.2 percent — to 1.8 percent of GDP if Medicare shares in the cuts, and to 1.3 percent of GDP if it does not.

These cuts would be noticeably deeper than those required under the austere House-passed budget plan authored by Budget Committee Chairman Paul Ryan (R-WI).  (Romney’s nondefense cuts are deeper because his proposal increases core defense spending — the defense budget other than war costs and some relatively small items such as military family housing — to 4 percent of GDP, while the Ryan budget does not.)  Over the coming decade, Romney would require cuts in programs other than core defense of $6.1 trillion, compared with $5.0 trillion in cuts under the House-passed budget plan.

P.S.  Mr. President, fire your debate coaches.  They failed you.  Use Bill Clinton as a debating partner, and loosen up.  It’s not tennis, it’s basketball and you are good at it.  Get back your shoulder bump, spin dribble, pick and roll and remember your jump shots.  You’ve got what it takes.  You gotta use it.


Andrew Sullivan is another who was dismayed — here with some of  what he saw:

Now I’ve slept on it, that seems to me what happened last night. It was such a mesmerizing sales job and so relentless, checked at no point by Lehrer, and at no point checked by past reality or facts, Obama was left with two options: say this pleasant-seeming guy next to him is a shameless weather-vane and liar (wouldn’t work in a debate, is just against Obama’s character) or to try and remind the country of Romney’s actual policies as he has laid them out, and rebut the facts relentlessly. Obama tried the latter really, really badly, but the obvious retort to Romney’s smiling total pivot was: what on earth are you talking about? Who are you? Who will you be tomorrow?

But here’s the key political-policy point, it seems to me. In the last few days, Romney has said he will keep the DREAM executive order, keep all the good things in Obamacare, while getting rid of “Obamacare” (impossible); he will protect Medicare from Obama’s $700 billion “raid” and keep it as an option for seniors for ever, if they choose; and he will enact his version of Simpson-Bowles, because he is more moderate and bipartisan than Obama. Lehrer, who made Romney’s case for getting rid of PBS funding all by himself, did not see himself as a fact-checker – or even a moderator who could press a candidate to explain himself. He was simply a facilitator for the Romney sales job, which flummoxed Obama, in the worst public performance bar none of his campaign (I watched him give an economic policy speech once that was seriously coma-inducing).

More fatally for the president, the argument works. And it works precisely because of GOP extremism. If one party simply refuses to support anything a president of another party proposes and is primarily devoted to obstructionism on everything, then they can, if they are reckless enough both to create a credit crisis and prevent any further stimulus, succeed in essentially blackmailing the country by destroying its political system and then blaming it on the president. It’s cynical and corrupt and contemptible and unpatriotic – but lethal.

And included in a earlier Sullivan post is this from Jonathan Chait:

Romney won the debate in no small part because he adopted a policy of simply lying about his policies. Probably the best way to understand Obama’s listless performance is that he was prepared to debate the claims Romney has been making for the entire campaign, and Romney switched up and started making different and utterly bogus ones. Obama, perhaps, was not prepared for that, and he certainly didn’t think quickly enough on his feet to adjust to it.

and more from Chait:

 Romney was forceful and articulate and dodged his association with almost all the most unpopular aspects of his platform. But his success at doing so was built upon two demonstrable untruths.

The most important was taxes. Romney asserted, “I cannot reduce the burden paid by high-income Americans.” Let me explain how this is untrue even by his own campaign’s accounting.

Obama badly flubbed this topic by allowing Romney to change the baseline of the discussion. Romney is promising to extend all the Bush tax cuts and refuses to accept even slightly higher revenue as part of a deficit deal. On top of that, he is proposing a huge, regressive income tax rate cut that would reduce revenue by an additional $5 trillion, but promises to make up for it by closing tax deductions. Obama directed his fire almost entirely at the additional tax cut, leaving mostly untouched, until the end, Romney’s pledge to never bargain away any of the Bush tax cuts.

…  The other issue was health care. Romney has promised to protect health insurance for people with preexisting conditions who maintain continuous coverage. That caveat is vital, because that right has existed since 1996. It’s a very minor protection. Phrasing his promise this way has allowed Romney to make a promise that sounds like he would keep Obamacare’s protections for people with preexisting coverage without committing himself to anything at all (except, I suppose, keeping in place a 1996 law that didn’t do much).

At the debate last night, Romney didn’t phrase his promise in this misleading-but-true fashion. He promised, “preexisting conditions are covered under my plan.” That is not true. He dropped the legalistic mumbo-jumbo that renders his promise meaningless and promised something. But his plan doesn’t do that. And his adviser Eric Fehrnstrom, asked after the debate if Romney was really promising to cover people with preexisting conditions, admitted that he isn’t.

And as to Jim Lehrer, the PBS moderator?  As Richard Kim at the Nation says, “he got pwned.”


P.P.S to Obama supporters.  Don’t let our (my) dismay rule our response.  Contact has been made.  Adrenaline is the natural response.  Let’s use it!  Here’s a “parody” that has some lift to it:

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