WASHINGTON — A $5 trillion tax cut, a doubling of the deficit, a $716 billion Medicare raid. Were the slings and arrows of the first US presidential debate pin-point accurate attacks, or fact-defying hocus pocus?
A bit of both, to be sure. But with the figures flying Wednesday night, President Barack Obama’s campaign spokeswoman Jen Psaki may have said it best when she noted on Thursday that “fact checkers are having a good day today.”
The men and women drilling into the proclamations, promises and platforms put forward by Obama and his Republican rival Mitt Romney called out the two White House hopefuls when their figures strayed into fantasy.
Many of the more flagrant manipulations of the facts in Denver were committed by the Republican challenger, according to congressional expert Thomas Mann of the Brookings Institution think tank in Washington.
“The fact checkers will have a field day on Romney,” he told AFP. “He brazenly lied on numerous occasions and that could change the story line over the next several days.”
Among Romney’s apparent faux pas was his claim — repeated incessantly on the campaign trail — that the president is “cutting” $716 billion from Medicare as part of his landmark health care reform law.
“But the fact is, the money isn’t being taken away from Medicare,” according to FactCheck.org, which said in its online report Thursday that it “found exaggerations and false claims flying thick and fast during the first debate.”
Medicare is still spending those funds, it’s just that Obama is doling them out to insurance companies and drug manufacturers more slowly, a move that nonpartisan analysts say extends the solvency of the government health plan for the elderly by eight years, to 2024.
The president stepped into a thicket early on when he suggested that “Romney’s central economic plan calls for a $5 trillion tax cut.”
The Republican immediately objected: “I don’t have a $5 trillion tax cut.”
The claims of both men, it turns out, deserve scrutiny.
FactCheck rated Obama’s accusation “not true,” noting that “Romney proposes to offset his rate cuts and promises he won’t add to the deficit.”
But exactly how he would do that is unclear. Romney has proposed slashing tax rates by 20 percent, eliminating the estate tax, and ending taxes on dividends for people making under $200,000.
The non-partisan Tax Policy Center said the move would reduce revenues by nearly $500 billion in 2015, extrapolated out to about $5 trillion over a decade.
Romney insists he would keep his plan “revenue neutral” by broadening the tax base and closing tax loopholes and deductions for high earners, although the Republican candidate has been sketchy on the details.
“The Tax Policy Center has analyzed the specifics of Romney’s plan thus far released and concluded that the numbers aren’t there to make it revenue neutral,” The Washington Post’s Fact Checker column reported.
But Romney was right on target when he said Obama pledged to “cut the deficit in half.”
“That’s the case. It’s right there on YouTube. True,” said PolitiFact, the respected truth-in-politics project of the Tampa Bay Times.
Romney has consistently hit the president for not honoring that pledge, but he strayed into trouble when he said Obama “doubled” the deficit.
Not true, according to The New York Times “Check Point” column, which issued comprehensive analysis of the debate claims and counterclaims.
“For fiscal year 2012, which ended last week, the deficit is expected to be $1.1 trillion — just under the level in the year (Obama) was inaugurated,” according to the Times.
Romney also hit Obama for not doing enough on jobs when there are “23 million people out of work.”
A compelling criticism, to be sure, but Romney overstated the number of unemployed.
Citing Bureau of Labor Statistic figures, FactCheck pointed out there were 12.5 million unemployed in August, with another eight million “underemployed” and 2.6 million “marginally attached” to the work force because they have not actively looked for a job in recent weeks.
Fact checkers have an avid following among politicos inside the Washington Beltway, but a key question in the final weeks before polls on November 6 is whether voters embrace the efforts to fact-check the two candidates’ claims.