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Note to President Obama: Campaigns do make stuff up

August 20, 2012|By Jon Healey
  • President Barack Obama takes questions in the White House on Monday.
President Barack Obama takes questions in the White House on Monday. (Alex Wong / Getty Images )

"They can run the campaign that they want, but the truth of the matter is, you can't just make stuff up."

So said President Obama at a press conference Monday, complaining about an attack ad that presumptive GOP presidential nominee Mitt Romney has been running. He's right, but in a highly misleading way. Campaigns typically hew to an unwritten rule against inventing allegations out of whole cloth. Instead, they rely on other people to make stuff up, then cite those "experts" as the source of their wild claims.

Case in point: the "Romney Tax Calculator" on Obama's campaign website, which projects how much more Romney's tax plan would cost most Americans than Obama's would. In the fine print, the site says it based its calculations on a number of assumptions, including an analysis by the non-partisan Tax Policy Center. In other words, the calculator churns out numbers based on guesswork. And those numbers show -- surprise! -- that "average families" at various income levels up to $500,000 would all see a tax increase under Romney's proposal.

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Romney has proposed to cut tax rates by 20% across the board from their current levels (that is, 20% below the Bush-era tax cuts); Obama has said he would continue the cuts he endorsed in 2010, minus the 2% temporary cut in payroll taxes and the Bush-era levels for couples making more than $250,000. So on the surface, you'd think the tax bite from Romney's plan would be smaller than Obama's. But Romney has also said that he would eliminate unspecified tax breaks to help offset the cost of his tax plan, prompting three very sharp economists at the Tax Policy Center to estimate that lower- and middle-income taxpayers would actually see their tax bills go up.

As much as I respect the center's efforts, it was wrong to assume that Romney would offset the entire cost of the 20% cut by eliminating other tax breaks. If he did so, then it would be extremely hard, if not impossible, to avoid wiping out some tax breaks that are important to the middle class. But Romney's campaign insists that he would find other ways to pay for the tax cut, such as by cutting regulations to unleash more economic growth. There's more than a whiff of voodoo economics at work, but that doesn't mean that the Obama campaign's tax calculator is any more legitimate.

Another example comes from the Obama campaign's latest campaign commercial, which tries to rebut an attack that Romney and his running mate, House Budget Committee Chairman Paul D. Ryan (R-Wis.), have been making about the Medicare cuts included in the 2010 healthcare reform law. Titled "Facts" (insert ironic comment about irony here), it includes this statement: "Experts say Ryan's voucher plan could raise future retirees' costs more than $6,000."

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Well, yes, the liberal Center on Budget and Policy Priorities did say that -- about last year's version of Ryan's proposal. The current edition is significantly different, rendering the center's analysis inapplicable. There may be some cost increases for future retirees under the current plan, but they'd occur much further down the road.

So while the Obama campaign didn't just make that particular criticism up, its cynical and misleading recontextualization of the center's analysis isn't far removed from fiction.

Why the campaign should feel compelled to play this sort of game is mystifying, given that Obama has plenty of supporters willing to do so on the president's behalf. For example, there's Priorities USA Action, the "super PAC" run by former Obama aides, which all but accused Romney of killing the wife of a worker laid off by a Bain Capital-owned steel mill that went bankrupt while Romney was on leave from the firm. Another example is Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nevada), who said on the Senate floor that Romney paid no taxes for 10 years.

(Romney denied the allegation, eventually saying he paid at least 13% of his income in taxes each year over the past decade.)

There are similar examples coming from the other side, so I don't mean to suggest that Democrats are the only ones in this campaign playing fast and loose with the truth. (Just for starters, the latest Romney ad distorts Obama's policy on welfare, then tries to legitimize the distortion by citing the expert opinion of a conservative Virginia editorial board.)  My only point that if Obama really believes a presidential campaign "can't just make stuff up," he should take another look at what his own staff and allies are doing.

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