Debating against an Etch-A-Sketch

Debating against an Etch-A-Sketch

How could cutting federal programs and cutting taxes ‘grow the economy’?

It was Gov. Mitt Romney who said, last night, that he would not reduce taxes for high-income individuals. It was Romney who said, “I’m not looking for a $5 trillion tax cut.” Romney repeatedly said he does not favor a tax cut for the rich. It was Romney who first said, “We have to have regulation” in the financial sector, adding that we can’t have people opening up a bank in their garage. Romney said, “I’m not going to cut education funding.” It was Romney who repeated–shades of George H. W. Bush’s “read my lips”–that he would not, underscore not, pursue any tax cut that raises the deficit. Romney’s own words: “My plan is not to put in place any tax cut that will add to the deficit.”

Romney, before first debate

Let’s set aside for a moment any questions about the truth content of the statements. The immediate observation for me last night–watching the televised debate, with estimable moderator Jim Lehrer, on C-Span–was Romney’s acute defensiveness.

He’s right to be defensive, of course. Romney and Paul Ryan, his running mate, have between them produced hundreds of utterances exactly the reverse of the foregoing. A quick run-down, quickly pulled off the top from a mountain of examples:

  • Ryan’s tax plan as originally published supports eliminating the capital gains tax entirely–along with all taxes on interest, dividends, and inheritance
  • Romney’s own tax plan, updated under fire, retains the George W. Bush tax cuts for the wealthy
  • Romney’s tax plan additionally cuts individual income tax rates in yet-unspecified ways
  • Romney’s tax plan, like Ryan’s, also eliminates taxes on investment income, eliminates any taxes raising revenue in the health reform legislation, and eliminates the estate (inheritance) tax–a provision that benefits himself greatly
  • Romney and Ryan have both repeatedly proposed lowering the corporate income tax rate, claiming that U.S. corporations pay higher taxes even when news reports and other analysis show top companies paying no income tax in a given year
  • as to education, both Romney and Ryan want to repeal the American Opportunity tax credit for higher education
  • Romney’s tax plan calls for repealing the refundability of the child tax credit and for repealing the expansion of the earned income tax credit (EITC)
  • in another sop to private companies making money off students and parents, Romney supports allowing students receiving federal aid, such as students with disabilities, to use their aid to pay for private schools (“school choice”)



The truth content of any statement by Romney on the campaign trail is up for grabs. The bigger the audience, the more up for grabs.

A reasoned assessment of candidate Romney’s statements as harbingers of future policy under a Romney-Ryan administration might note some of the things Romney did not say.

  • Although Romney said last night (defensively) that he would close loopholes in the tax code, as President Obama pointed out, Romney did not clarify what loopholes or deductions he might close. Romney implied that he would close loopholes or eliminate deductions that benefit the wealthy but did not say which.
  • Romney did not mention George W. Bush. Romney’s repeated assertion that he will not “cut” taxes for the wealthy leaves in place the previous cuts passed under the Bush administration.
  • Romney said that he would “replace” Dodd-Frank but did not say how he would replace the legislation or with what.
  • Romney did not mention congressional Republicans, by name or by specific policy. This was politic. Candidate Romney cannot castigate the president for ‘slow’ economic recovery from the worst economic event since the Great Depression, if people remember that everything the Obama administration has tried has been opposed by Sen. Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.), Rep. John Boehner (R-Ohio) and Rep. Eric Cantor (R-Va.).
  • Come to think of it, Romney did not mention by name any top Republicans now running for office or for reelection. He did not mention even his own running mate, Paul Ryan–also running for Congress–until the president mentioned him in connection with Ryan’s Medicare proposals. Possibly Romney less than pleased with some of Ryan’s recent criticisms of his gaffes.

Ryan and Medicare

As said, more than a trifle defensive, and understandably so. By all accounts, Romney came into last night’s debate pretty much on his own–though he will benefit from the predictable spin by the right-wing echo chamber, always ready to scare the timorous. (A glance at headlines shows they’re already double-standarding the president on defensiveness.)

Diagram of weather vane

Back to the debate–before leaving this quick sketch of not-mentioned’s, one final item.

On reducing the deficit, candidate Romney said, “I have my own plan.”

From the transcript:

LEHRER: Governor, what about Simpson-Bowles? Do you support Simpson-Bowles?

ROMNEY: Simpson-Bowles, the president should have grabbed that.

LEHRER: No, I mean, do you support Simpson-Bowles?

ROMNEY: I have my own plan. It’s not the same as Simpson- Bowles. But in my view, the president should have grabbed it. If you wanted to make some adjustments to it, take it, go to Congress, fight for it.

OBAMA: That’s what we’ve done, made some adjustments to it, and we’re putting it forward before Congress right now, a $4 trillion plan . . .

ROMNEY: But you’ve been — but you’ve been president four years…


This is a perfect example of (some of) the most infuriating GOP tactics. It’s Romney’s kind of syllogism. One, the president should have supported Simpson-Bowles. Two, I am not supporting Simpson-Bowles and am not saying how I differ. Three, the president should have supported Simpson-Bowles.

No mention, no mention whatsoever, of congressional Republicans’ obstruction of every social and fiscal proposal for the last four years. No mention of their stated determination to keep Obama from doing anything to improve the economy or to reduce the deficit–since that would enhance his chances of reelection.

Mitch McConnell

It is a relief, in a sense, to turn from Romney’s omissions and outright lies to some moments of clarity. Here are a few:

Romney stated repeatedly that he will support “no tax cut that adds to the deficit.” He also referred repeatedly to balancing the budget. “My plan is not to put in place any tax cut that will add to the deficit. That’s point one.”

When Obama said, “Romney has ruled out revenue” in deficit reduction, and Lehrer asked Romney to respond to the statement, Romney agreed.

Romney repeatedly referred to shifting federal programs to the states. Romney stuck with the idea of turning even Medicaid over to states, even when Obama rightly criticized it.

Fifty fiscal cliffs?

Obviously, if you push the costs of federal programs on to the states by turning over federal programs to states, you–so to speak–reduce the federal deficit. You also produce a 50-state version of the fiscal cliff. I am hoping no sane person anywhere to the left of Louis XVI goes along with this. Romney’s idea, in case anyone missed it, amounts to turning health care over to the states, turning veterans’ benefits over to the states, turning Medicaid over to the states. Does anyone envision the state of Alabama, or South Carolina, getting insurance companies to provide actual health care coverage–either for poor people or for anyone else? How about the state legislatures of Tennessee or Kentucky? Have they made the insurance industry play ball? When? Are they provided with the laws-with-teeth it takes to exact sizable fines from large companies committing fraud, including insurance companies that defraud? Do they even have the resources to prosecute multi-state fraudsters?

On Medicare, another moment of clarity. From the transcript:

LEHRER: All right. Can we—can the two of you agree that the voters have a choice—a clear choice between the two . . .

ROMNEY: Absolutely.

LEHRER: . . . of you on Medicare?

ROMNEY: Absolutely.

OBAMA: Absolutely.


Now to some clearer statements from Romney.

From the transcript:

“I don’t want to cost jobs. My priority is jobs. And so what I do is I bring down the tax rates, lower deductions and exemptions, the same idea behind Bowles-Simpson, by the way, get the rates down, lower deductions and exemptions, to create more jobs, because there’s nothing better for getting us to a balanced budget than having more people working, earning more money, paying more taxes. That’s by far the most effective and efficient way to get this budget balanced.”

From the transcript:

“So how do we deal with it? Well, mathematically, there are three ways that you can cut a deficit. One, of course, is to raise taxes. Number two is to cut spending. And number [three] is to grow the economy, because if more people work in a growing economy, they’re paying taxes, and you can get the job done that way.

The presidents would—president would prefer raising taxes. I understand. The problem with raising taxes is that it slows down the rate of growth. And you could never quite get the job done. I want to lower spending and encourage economic growth at the same time.

What things would I cut from spending? Well, first of all, I will eliminate all programs by this test, if they don’t pass it: Is the program so critical it’s worth borrowing money from China to pay for it? And if not, I’ll get rid of it. Obamacare’s on my list.”

For my money, this is the place to arrive, for anyone who wants to evaluate the somewhat slippery Romney’s vision for the future. The statements just quoted come as close as anything can to Romney’s core principles.

They also amount to a Get-out-of-jail-free card for candidate Romney. You see, it’s number [three], ‘growing the economy’, that works the magic. Growing the economy will produce jobs; more jobs will mean more taxes paid by working people–we just recently heard Veep nominee and congressional candidate Ryan expressing concern about that; and more taxes from working people will mean reducing the deficit.

And how will Romney ‘grow the economy’? We’ve heard it before. He will cut taxes and cut federal programs.

This is the game plan. Forget repetitions of the potent word ‘jobs’. Forget touching anecdotes about a few individuals. Forget claims of supporting the middle class. Cutting taxes and cutting federal programs will grow the economy, and that will take care of all our other problems.

And what if it doesn’t work?


Romney’s debate performance is spawning numerous fact-based rebuttals. This one  from Daily Kos is representative.

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