Part 2—Poisoned fruit of a potted plant: A striking factual misstatement was made in Wednesday’s debate.
We don’t refer to Mitt Romney’s confusing statement about his proposed tax plan. (“First of all, I don't have a $5 trillion tax cut. I don't have a tax cut of a scale that you're talking about.”)
That statement should have been challenged and clarified (see below). But it isn’t exactly “wrong.” It pretty much ain’t a “misstatement.”
No, the factual misstatement to which we refer was made by Barack Obama! Responding to Romney’s representation, Obama made the remarks which follow.
The highlighted statement is wrong:
OBAMA (10/3/12): Let's talk about taxes, because I think it's instructive.The highlighted part of that statement is wrong. But before long, Obama repeated himself:
Now, Governor Romney's proposal that he has been promoting for 18 months calls for a $5 trillion tax cut, on top of $2 trillion of additional spending for our military. And he is saying that he is going to pay for it by closing loopholes and deductions. The problem is that he's been asked over 100 times how you would close those deductions and loopholes, and he hasn't been able to identify them.
LEHRER: Do you challenge what the governor just said about his own plan?The point is relatively minor, but instructive. In fact, Romney has not been promoting his current tax plan “for eighteen months.” In fact, he introduced his proposal in late February, during the Republican primary struggle in Arizona.
OBAMA: Well, for 18 months he's been running on this tax plan. And now, five weeks before the election, he's saying that his big, bold idea is, "Never mind.”
Here's the basic chronology:
Romney started his campaign with modest tax proposals. But other Republican hopefuls presented massive, ridiculous tax cut plans, thereby pleasing the base.
Finally, Romney followed suit, offering a crazy proposal of his own. Late in February, John Harwood reported the new proposal in the New York Times:
HARWOOD (2/23/12): Mitt Romney, seeking to kick-start his presidential campaign among recalcitrant conservatives, on Wednesday proposed cutting the top income tax for individuals to 28 percent while holding out the prospect of limiting tax deductions.Does Obama really think that Romney has been pushing this plan for the past eighteen months? In some ways, this point doesn’t matter a giant amount, although the chronology helps us see why Romney would make such an absurd proposal—a proposal which turned out to be “mathematically impossible.”
Mr. Romney's earlier economic plan called only for preserving the current top tax rate of 35 percent, while holding out the promise of lower rates later in an overhaul of the tax code. But facing a major challenge from the upstart Republican rival Rick Santorum, he chose to outline such an overhaul in Arizona before critical primaries here and in Michigan next Tuesday—and before a televised debate Wednesday night in Mesa, Ariz.
Mr. Romney's top economic adviser, Glenn Hubbard, said the plan would cut all six current tax brackets...by the same proportion of 20 percent...
But echoing the candidate, he added that Mr. Romney was committed to making his plan both “revenue neutral”–meaning it won’t add to the budget deficit—and “distributionally neutral”—meaning that it won’t shift the tax burden from upper-income Americans to middle- and working-class Americans.
Sorry! If Obama didn’t know that chronology, that represents a striking lack of preparation. That said, Obama made a second apparent error in the passages we’ve quoted above—an error which was widely echoed on MSNBC last evening.
In the response to Jim Lehrer we have quoted, Obama seems to claim that Romney abandoned his long-standing tax cut proposal during Wednesday’s debate. In truth, that simply isn’t the case—but a string of pundits didn’t seem to understand this matter last night.
All over The One True Liberal Channel, pundits claimed that Romney had suddenly dumped his previous tax cut proposal. This represented a woeful lack of conceptual smarts—unless these people were simply conning us rubes as part of MSNBC’s ongoing “let’s be like Fox” corporate strategy.
All over MSNBC, pundits advanced this claim—the same claim Obama seemed to advance. Romney has abandoned his plan! For one example of many, here was Rachel Maddow, basically getting it wrong:
MADDOW (10/4/12): We know one way Mr. Romney may be trying to neutralize expected attacks on his economic ideas could be to rob his opponent`s words of any meaning, right?Soon, Jonathan Alter was allowed to comment for a few moments. He seemed to agree with Maddow’s view.
Now we also know after last night's debate is— The other thing he’s doing is just saying the economic plan he has been stumping for all year long is not his plan at all. Mr. Romney worked both those strategies last night and Mr. Romney, of course, won the debate—he won on style, he won presentation, he won on demeanor.
Or something. We're not quite sure:
MADDOW: The other part of it is Mitt Romney saying that he does not espouse positions that he's been running on all year. The president did try to get him on that, on the $5 trillion tax-cut thing. I’m not sure he effectively pinned him down on that though the Obama campaign was spinning that they did.That’s where it ended. Once again, Maddow claimed that Romney had flipped—that he "said he no longer espouses" his tax cut proposal.
ALTER: OK, I think they made a mistake on that issue, the Obama people did, by going with the $5 trillion, because that, you know, policy wonks can debate whether it amounts to $5 trillion or not. What they can’t debate, it’s a 20 percent tax reduction for the wealthiest Americans. That is a plain irrefutable fact and if they used that, it would, first of all, explain more what this is, which is a tax cut for the wealthy, which was one of several points the president wasn’t able to actually convey in a clear way. And would also be, you know, beyond dispute factually.
It isn’t clear whether Alter agreed. But Maddow was basically wrong.
Did Romney suddenly disavow his long-running tax cut proposal? Almost surely, no, he did not—though the confusion which has resulted shows why Lehrer should have required Romney to clarify his remarks.
Let’s return to Romney’s fuller statement on Wednesday night. Lehrer should have engineered a clarification of these remarks. But this is what Romney actually said—and no, this isn’t a change in the position he has held for the past seven months:
ROMNEY (10/3/12): I'd like to clear up the record and go through it piece by piece.In certain ways, some of those statements don’t seem to make sense. But Romney’s statements in that passage closely track the basic points he has always made about his tax cut proposal, going right back to Harwood’s report. To wit:
First of all, I don't have a $5 trillion tax cut. I don't have a tax cut of a scale that you're talking about. My view is that we ought to provide tax relief to people in the middle-class. But I'm not going to reduce the share of taxes paid by high-income people. High-income people are doing just fine in this economy. They'll do fine whether you're president or I am.
Finally, with regards to that tax cut, look, I'm not looking to cut massive taxes and to reduce the revenues going to the government. My—my number-one principal is, there will be no tax cut that adds to the deficit. I want to underline that: no tax cut that adds to the deficit.
But I do want to reduce the burden being paid by middle-income Americans. And I—and to do that, that also means I cannot reduce the burden paid by high-income Americans. So any—any language to the contrary is simply not accurate.
Romney has always said that his plan will be revenue neutral. He has always said that the rich will pay the same share of taxes under his proposal.
What did Romney mean when he said, “I don't have a $5 trillion tax cut?” Had Lehrer made him clarify that statement, he probably would have said something like this:
Jim, my tax plan will be revenue neutral. There won’t be $5 trillion lost to the government or anything dimly like that. The president is making it sound like I’m going to cut government revenues by some huge amount to facilitate tax cuts for the rich. But I have repeated tonight what I’ve always said: “There will be no tax cut that adds to the deficit.” And I have repeated something else I’ve always said: “I'm not going to reduce the share of taxes paid by high-income people.”
Almost surely, that’s what Romney would have said if Lehrer had forced him to clarify. And Lehrer should have made him do so. It could have erased a lot of confusion—the kind of confusion which was seen all over cable last night.
Did Romney abandon his proposal in Wednesday night’s debate? Actually, no—he did not. For weeks, Romney and his surrogates have been walking back the hard proposal about the twenty percent cut in tax rates, with Romney insisting that he won’t do a proposal which lowers the share of taxes paid by the rich.
For people who have been following the discussion, his statements on Wednesday were more of the same. Incredibly, Obama didn’t seem to be one of those people.
Last evening, the pundits on MSNBC seemed clueless about this. Or they were heavily scripted, in ways which kept them in line with Obama's remarks.
On the Last Word, it was clear that Ezra Klein does understand that Romney hasn’t abandoned his proposal. But in deference to his pompous host, you could also see Klein couching his language. He struggled to keep his remarks technically accurate while seeming to agree with Lawrence’s characterization of Romney’s remarks as “his $5 trillion lie.” (To watch the full segment, click this.)
Inevitably, Romney’s remarks have turned out to be confusing, unclear. But it’s just stupid to call his remarks a “lie.” Did we mention that Klein was speaking with Lawrence O’Donnell?
Plainly, Klein understands the shape of the Romney policies. (He specifically said he wasn't surprised by the things Romney said. Incredibly, it looked like Obama was.) But Klein also knows that he must go along with his channel’s pseudo-liberal herd.
That said, two key points emerged from last night’s ball of confusion. This takes us back to Jim Lehrer’s woeful performance on Wednesday:
First point: It’s damaging for progressive interests when TV liberals can’t articulate such basic matters.
In fact, Candidate Romney’s tax cut proposal was completely absurd from the start. In August, the Tax Policy Center said it was “mathematically impossible.”
But Romney didn’t abandon the proposal on Wednesday; he merely continued a process of smoothing and fudging which has been underway for weeks. And he continued to stress some points he has made all along: His ultimate plan will be revenue neutral. It won’t decrease the share of taxes paid by the rich.
When TV liberals can’t follow such matters, it means that progressives have a set of unskilled players advancing their interests on the TV machine thingy—or pretending to do so.
Second point: The confusion displayed all over cable takes us back to that potted plant, moderator Jim Lehrer.
Romney’s central statement on Wednesday was sure to create confusion. A moderator who wasn’t stuck in soil would have intervened, making him explain what he meant when he said, “I don't have a $5 trillion tax cut.”
Lehrer simply stared into air—and last night, the confusion was general. For decades, our policy discourse has functioned this way. Within the American press corps, the skills are few at the top.
The chaos of our public discourse helps us see what life is like under a press corps which is, at its heart, a D-minus elite. Last night, Rachel and Lawrence were basically wrong.
Then again, so was Obama on Wednesday night. Obama was unprepared!
Next: Lehrer in Gethsemane
What Romney has proposed: Here are some of the facts which might have emerged if Lehrer sought clarification:
Fact: If all tax rates were cut by twenty percent, that would reduce government revenues by roughly $5 trillion over the first ten years.
Fact: Romney has always said that the cuts in tax rates should be accompanied by elimination of loopholes, making the overall proposal revenue neutral.
Fact: The Tax Policy Center said, in August, that there aren’t enough tax loopholes to fully offset that cut in tax rates.
Fact: Romney has been walking back his proposal for weeks, suggesting (among other things) that tax rates might not be cut by twenty percent if his basic requirements can’t be met at that level.
Last night, chaos reigned on MSNBC—unless the children were simply pursuing a Fox-like propaganda campaign. If Lehrer wasn’t a potted plant, clarity might have emerged.