Truth in the details

Walter Pincus
Reporter July 25, 2012

Does a politician repeat himself in a speech to convince his audience or himself that he is telling the truth?

That question dogged me as I read and re-read Mitt Romney’s Tuesday speech to the Veterans of Foreign Wars convention in Reno, Nev.

“Today we are just months away from an arbitrary, across-the-board budget reduction that would saddle the military with a trillion dollars in cuts, severely shrink our force structure and impair our ability to meet and deter threats,” he said.

Romney was referring to two situations created by the 2011 Budget Control Act (BCA), the bipartisan legislation to get the debt limit increase approved and prevent the United States from defaulting. The BCA calls for some $2.3 trillion in debt reduction through cuts in discretionary spending over the next 10 years, or by increased revenues.

For the first $1.1 trillion, Democrats and Republicans agreed last year that $500 billion would come out of defense programs, the rest from non-defense accounts. Republicans did not agree to any new revenues.

Another $1.2 trillion in reductions, this time to include new revenue, was to be set by a bipartisan commission. But if the commission failed, the BCA said the cuts would come from a process called sequestration, which requires reductions out of all government programs, with another $500 billion to come from defense.

The commission didn’t reach an agreement, and so far Congress hasn’t acted. Sequestration looms.

Steps for the first $500 billion in cuts are in the fiscal 2013 National Defense Authorization and Appropriations bills. Both have passed the House and are pending in the Senate.

Recently, individual Republicans have been trying to pin the $1 trillion on President Obama — not just the possibility of sequestration’s $500 billion defense cut, but also last year’s agreed-upon $500 billion.

On Tuesday, Romney took up this erroneous idea — again and again.

“Many in Washington look to cut defense spending as an easy way out. That includes our current president,” he said in describing the difficult economic conditions.

At another point, he said, “This is no time for the president’s radical cuts in our military.”

And later, when he described world threats, he added, “All this and more is going on in the world and yet the president had — has chosen this moment for wholesale reductions in the nation’s military capacity.”

Romney kept it going all the way through.

“If you don’t want America to be the strongest nation on earth, I’m not your president. But with his cuts to the military, you have that president today.”

Romney aides said their candidate can blame Obama for the sequester because he “has not made a serious effort to stave [it] off,” even after his own defense secretary said it would be devastating.

It would be interesting to poll the VFW audience on just who caused what.

On Monday, Obama gave a brief lecture on the defense budget to that same crowd.

“Given all the rhetoric lately — it is political season — let’s also set the record straight on the budget,” he said. “Those big across-the-board cuts, including defense, that Congress said would occur next year if they couldn’t reach a deal to reduce the deficit — let’s understand, first of all, there’s no reason that should happen, because people in Congress ought to be able to come together and agree on a plan, a balanced approach that reduces the deficit and keeps our military strong.”

He then tried to score his own political point.

“There are a number of Republicans in Congress who don’t want you to know that most of them voted for these cuts. Now they’re trying to wriggle out of what they agreed to do. Instead of making tough choices to reduce the deficit, they’d rather protect tax cuts for some of the wealthiest Americans, even if it risks big cuts in our military. And I’ve got to tell you, VFW, I disagree.”

The president, too, hammered home his own message.

“If the choice is between tax cuts that the wealthiest Americans don’t need and funding our troops that they definitely need to keep our country strong, I will stand with our troops every single time. So let’s stop playing politics with our military. Let’s get serious and reduce our deficit and keep our military strong.”

Both Romney and the president got cheers and applause with their final lines on the defense budget.

One other point Romney made to the VFW is worth noting. This time he was referring to sequestration on the non-defense side.

“Mark my words,” he said, “those cuts would only weaken an already stretched VA [Department of Veterans Affairs] system and our solemn commitment that every veteran receives care second to none. If I am president of the United States, I will not let that happen.”

The day before, Obama recounted when VFW National Commander Richard DeNoyer visited him in the Oval Office. They discussed the potential of sequester budget cuts and the VA.

“My administration has made it clear,” Obama said, “your veterans benefits are exempt from sequestration. They are exempt.”

The audience cheered and applauded.

Maybe the Romney camp didn’t hear them.

Or maybe they simply were too busy envisioning the cheers and applause they would get from falsely tagging Obama with the $1 trillion in defense cuts.

For previous Fine Print columns, go to washingtonpost.com/fedpage.

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