By John Stodder
In the aftermath of the first 2012 presidential debate, President Obama and his supporters took every opportunity to explain that while the president admittedly had an off-night, the debate’s real story was that his opponent, Gov. Mitt Romney, was untruthful about his own proposals, particularly his tax cut plan.
“When I got onto the stage, I met this very spirited fellow who claimed to be Mitt Romney,” Obama said the next day in Denver at his first rally after the debate. “But it couldn’t have been Mitt Romney, because the real Mitt Romney has been running around the country all year promising $5 trillion in tax cuts for the wealthy. The fellow onstage last night said he didn’t know anything about that.”
Obama’s senior campaign adviser, David Axelrod, blamed Romney’s untruthfulness for Obama’s listless affect, suggesting on CBS that Obama’s performance was thrown off because, “I think he was a little taken aback at the brazenness with which Gov. Romney walked away from so many of the positions on which he’s run, walked away from his record.”
Democrats say they hope that during this week’s vice-presidential debate, incumbent Joe Biden will be able to make challenger Paul Ryan, R-Wis., pay for Romney’s transgressions.
The Hill quoted an unnamed Obama campaign official as saying, “On Thursday, Ryan will either be forced to continue Romney’s cover-up of the extreme policies he’s been the face of for years or stand by them as his boss keeps masking the truth — talk about a no-win situation.”
Tax cuts are the main issue about which Obama and his supporters claim Romney has falsified his campaign proposals. Obama contends Romney won the Republican nomination and appeased conservatives by promising a 20 percent, across-the-board tax cut that would benefit the wealthy more than the middle class, “including the top 1 percent,” Romney said at the GOP’s Feb. 22 debate in Mesa, Ariz.
But in the Oct. 3 debate against Obama, Romney said he “will not reduce the taxes paid by high-income Americans.”
In a column typical of what many pro-Obama pundits have written since the debate, Joe Conason said Romney’s aim was “to make swing voters forget the ‘severe conservative’ of the primaries … but he could do so only by spouting literally dozens of provably fraudulent assertions,” primarily about taxes.
However, a review of the archives of Federal News Service, a Washington, D.C., transcript service owned by The Dolan Co., indicates that Romney has articulated a position on tax cuts identical to his debate stance for at least eight months. These prior statements suggest that Obama and his backers should not have been surprised by what Romney said at the debate – and that they are wrong when they claim Romney is lying.
Contrary to Obama’s depiction of his opponent, Romney’s position on tax cuts has not changed, at least not since a Feb. 26, 2012 interview on “Fox News Sunday,” in which Romney said he would “broaden the [tax] base,” by limiting “the deductions or the exemptions” for “certain individuals, high-income individuals.”
The point of reducing tax rates for higher-income Americans is “to encourage economic growth, which it will do – put more people back to work, get more tax revenue by virtue of that,” he told “Fox News Sunday” host Chris Wallace. The idea is that reducing income tax rates gives an incentive to produce more income, and taking away deductions only strengthens that incentive, pushing earners and especially small businesses to work harder to achieve growth to compensate for the sacrificed deductions.
Trimming or eliminating deductions would also make up for revenue lost due to rate reductions.
In a June 17 interview with CBS’s Bob Schieffer, Romney said, “One of the absolute requirements of any tax reform that I have in mind is that people who are at the high end – whether you call them the 1 percent or 2 percent or half a percent – the people at the high end will still pay the same share of the tax burden they’re paying now. I’m not looking for a tax cut for the very wealthiest.”
Romney claimed he could ensure the rich continued to pay “the same share of the tax burden” by offsetting rate reductions with eliminating or narrowing tax deductions.
Then, on July 10 at a campaign appearance in Grand Junction, Colorado, Romney, after explaining his tax cut plan, said: “I want to make sure that – that we don’t reduce the burden on the highest-income taxpayers, we don’t raise the taxes on middle-income taxpayers.”
Romney offered much the same formula for lowering the corporate income tax back in December 2011. Speaking in Sioux City, Iowa, Romney said, “I’ll bring our rate down to 25 [percent] for employers and take out some special deductions and – and exemptions that – that companies currently get, so that we don’t lose revenue.”
The fact that Romney has been more consistent than the Obama campaign claims does not exempt Romney’s plan from all criticism, however. Obama objects to all of its iterations, frequently citing a study from the Tax Policy Center.
The Tax Policy Center, a project of two liberal think tanks, the Urban Institute and the Brookings Institution, argues that even if all possible deductions for high-income earners were closed, there would still have to be “a shift in the tax burden of at least $86 billion away from high-income taxpayers onto lower- and middle-income taxpayers,” to keep the plan from worsening the federal deficit. Hence, Obama has claimed Romney’s proposal inevitably will lead to tax increases on the middle class.
The Tax Policy Center’s study has its critics, including Romney. The conservative Heritage Foundation claimed that the study omitted some exemptions used by the wealthy to lower their tax burden that, if eliminated, could help pay for the tax cuts and prevent widening the deficit.
Alex Brill, a research fellow at the pro-free market American Enterprise Institute, published an essay arguing that the Tax Policy Center’s economic model starts with a flawed premise – that “any tax reform would not help the economy.” Advocates for Romney’s position insist that Romney’s plan is based on a realistic assumption that the tax cuts will spur additional economic growth.
Both the Tax Policy Center and its critics can only speculate on Romney’s plans with respect to deductions, however. In all interviews, Romney and Ryan decline to provide any specifics, and both have come under heavy criticism from the news media for leaving out those details. Implicit in both supportive and critical think tank analyses is that the cuts to deductions and exemptions for upper-income earners could be deep.
The debate over Romney’s tax cut plan will continue until the election, and the public’s verdict on it will help determine the outcome. Its ideological nature assures perpetual argument that will not stop if Romney is elected. But the additional charge Obama raised after the debate, that Romney is being dishonest about his proposal, is a myth. Romney has kept his proposal vague on some crucial details, but he hasn’t altered it.
John Stodder is the roving Web editor at The Dolan Co.