Negative ads often work. But clearly some negative ads work better than others.
Going over the exit poll data, it is striking to see that the messages sent by the Obama campaign were effective, while the messages of the Romney campaign largely fell on deaf ears.
Let’s take a look at three examples.
The Bain attacks
The Obama campaign — with an early assist by former House speaker Newt Gingrich — sought to define former governor Mitt Romney as a corporate raider with little regard for the concerns of middle-class Americans. Regular readers of this column will recall that we were frequently highly critical of these ads (for those who still care, here is a collection of columns), because the ads often stretched the facts and took complex business deals out of context.
“Governor Romney then also wants to spend $2 trillion on additional military programs, even though the military’s not asking for them.”
— President Obama, in the second presidential debate, Oct. 16, 2012
The assertion that Mitt Romney wants to boost defense spending by $2 trillion over 10 years, even though the military does not want it, has been a key claim by President Obama in presidential debates and Vice President Biden in the vice presidential debate.
It is such a large sum that it is probably difficult for most readers to grasp. But, as we often warn about big budget numbers, it is also a figure subject to so many variables that it should be treated with skepticism. It is certainly not a number that the Romney campaign accepts, though for some reason Romney has not tried hard to rebut it in the debates. (GOP vice presidential nominee Paul Ryan disputed the number in his debate with Biden.)
There are two parts to this statement we will examine — the $2 trillion number and the claim that the military has not asked for this budget. We obviously take no position on the proper size of the U.S. military or the right defense policy. We just want to explain the numbers. Warning: It’s complicated.
The $2 trillion figure stems from a statement in Romney’s National Security White Paper:
Video: Watch the exchange between President Obama and Mitt Romney on Libya at Tuesday night’s presidential debate.
The White House took issue with our instant fact check of the exchange on Libya between President Obama and former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney. This is probably the pivotal moment of the second presidential debate.
“The day after the attack, governor, I stood in the Rose Garden and I told the American people and the world that we are going to find out exactly what happened. That this was an act of terror and I also said that we’re going to hunt down those who committed this crime.”
“I think interesting the president just said something, which is that on the day after the attack he went into the Rose Garden and said that this was an act of terror.... I want to make sure we get that for the record because it took the president 14 days before he called the attack in Benghazi an act of terror.”
The moderator, Candy Crowley then jumped in. The first part of her comment has been often replayed, but less focus has been on the second part.
“He did call it an act of terror,” Crowley told Romney. “It did as well take two weeks or so for the whole idea there being a riot out there about this tape to come out. You are correct about that.”
This is how we assessed the exchange:
What did Obama say in the Rose Garden a day after the attack in Libya? We covered this previously in our extensive timeline of administration statements on Libya.
“No acts of terror will ever shake the resolve of this nation, alter that character, or eclipse the light of the values that we stand for,” Obama said.
But the president did not say “terrorism”— and Romney got tripped up when he repeated the “act of terror” phrasing.
Otherwise, Romney’s broader point is accurate — that it took the administration days to concede that the assault on the U.S. mission in Benghazi was an “act of terrorism” that appears unrelated to initial reports of anger at a video that defamed the prophet Muhammad. (The reporting is contradictory on whether there was indeed a demonstration outside the mission.) By our count, it took eight days for an administration official to concede that the deaths in Libya was the result of a “terrorist attack.”
More to Romney’s point, Obama continued to resist saying the “T” word, instead repeatedly bringing up the video, even in a speech to the U.N. General Assembly on Sept. 25. On Sept. 26 — 15 days after the attack — the White House spokesman felt compelled to assert “it is certainly the case that it is our view as an administration, the president’s view, that it was a terrorist attack.”
But White House National Security Council spokesman Tommy Vietor wrote us to dispute this assessment. He noted that Obama made three statements that referenced “act of terror” in the days following the attack. He further stated that the statement by counterterrorism director Matt Olsen was based on specific criteria regarding the term “international terrorism” and that “there was considerable confusion on the ground” about what actually happened in Benghazi before the attack.
The debate over Libya has become so politically charged and confusing that it’s time for a refresher course to sort this out.
Just as it is sometimes possible for Supreme Court justices to pick and choose among legal precedents in deciding a case, here too one can construct different narratives about the administration’s words. Here’s the case the administration is trying to make now.
“Mitt Romney plans to turn himself into a one-man truth squad during the first presidential debate next week, casting President Barack Obama as someone who can’t be trusted to stick to the facts or keep his promises.”
— Politico, Sept. 27, 2012
“At the First Debate, Facts Will Matter”
— Memo by Obama campaign advisor David Axelrod, Sept. 28
There has been a campaign to arrange for independent fact-checkers to be present at the presidential debates. We’re not sure what that would accomplish. Would we be like Olympic judges, holding up signs after each exchange with a numerical score for truthiness?
But we do applaud the idea of keeping the conversation grounded in facts, with either the moderator or the candidates themselves challenging misstatements, half-truths and exaggerations that have appeared in campaign ads and speeches throughout this election season. All too often, neither man has been directly challenged about his misleading statements. So here are some questions we would like to see.
“When some Republican governors asked if they could have waivers to try new ways to put people on welfare back to work, the Obama administration listened because we all know it’s hard for even people with good work histories to get jobs today. So moving folks from welfare to work is a real challenge. And the administration agreed to give waivers to those governors and others only if they had a credible plan to increase employment by 20 percent, and they could keep the waivers only if they did increase employment. Now did I make myself clear? The requirement was for more work, not less.”
— Former President Bill Clinton, at the Democratic National Convention, Sept. 5, 2012
Readers may recall that in August we gave Four Pinocchios to Mitt Romney for a television advertisement accusing President Obama of gutting Bill Clinton’s welfare overhaul — and also Three Pinocchios for the Obama administration’s counterspin that Romney himself had sought a similar waiver when he was governor of Massachusetts.
What’s the fuss about? Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF), the centerpiece of the 1996 legislation, established work requirements and time-limited benefits for recipients. But in July the Department of Health and Human Services issued a memorandum saying that it was encouraging “states to consider new, more effective ways to meet the goals of TANF, particularly helping parents successfully prepare for, find, and retain employment.” As part of that, the HHS secretary would consider issuing waivers to states concerning worker participation targets.
HHS’s action set off a firestorm of criticism by Republicans, which was echoed in Romney’s ad.
In his high-profile speech at the Democratic convention, Clinton himself came to Obama’s defense, claiming that the change in rules actually would require “more work, not less.” Last week, we said we wanted to spend some time digging into this statement before making a ruling. After talking to many people on all sides of the welfare debate, we can certainly say it is a very complex issue — which makes it ripe for fact-checking.
There are three basic rules in Washington: 1) Nothing happens by accident, 2) Personnel determines policy, and 3) No argument is ever settled. That dynamic is central to understanding the controversy surrounding the HHS memo. In this case, conservatives suspected that the administration was trying to achieve through regulatory fiat what liberals had not been able to accomplish through legislation in the past 16 years.
“The highest court in the land has now spoken.”
— President Obama, June 29, 2012
“What the Court did today was say that Obamacare does not violate the Constitution. What they did not do was say that Obamacare is good law or that it's good policy.”
— Former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney, June 29, 2012
Soon after the Supreme Court ruling upholding the health-care law, President Obama and his presumed GOP rival Mitt Romney emerged with talking points so dissimilar you’d wonder if they were speaking about the same law. We will try to disentangle some of the differences.
But, first, a word about the claim, advanced by Rush Limbaugh and others, that because of the ruling that the individual mandate is a tax, “Obamacare” is now the biggest tax increase in history. That’s an absurdity.
The health-care law did include substantial taxes, such as an additional tax on investment income for the wealthy, but those were always disclosed and never hidden. The penalties it included for failing to get health insurance — which the Supreme Court has now labeled a tax — amounted to just about $13 billion a year, or $65 billion in the first 10 years of the law, according to the Congressional Budget Office and the Joint Committee on Taxation. (See Table 2.)
That compares to a total of $525 billion in new revenues contained in the bill. (The CBO always listed the penalties as a revenue, along with the other taxes and fees contained in the bill.)
As to whether this is the biggest tax increase in history, the best way to measure the impact of taxes over a long period is to consider a tax increase or decrease as a percentage of the overall economy, also known as the gross domestic product.
A 2006 Treasury Department study listed a tax increase passed in 1942 as the clear winner for the title of biggest tax increase — worth more than 5 percent of GDP. (Yikes, now that’s a tax increase. But the United States was fighting a world war at the time.)
The health-care law doesn’t even come close — 0.49 percent of GDP. That’s one-tenth the size of the 1942 tax cut. Essentially, the health-care law’s taxes are about the size of Bill Clinton’s 1993 tax increase and significantly smaller than Ronald Reagan’s 1982 tax hike. (Our friends at PolitiFact beat us to the punch on this, awarding “Pants on Fire” to Limbaugh, and they have all of the math, plus other statistics.)
Now, let’s review the political statements.
"Now, an independent study says that about 70 percent of this new, $5 trillion tax cut would go to folks making over $200,000 a year. And folks making over a million dollars a year would get an average tax cut of about 25 percent.”
— President Obama, June 14, 2012, speaking about Romney tax plan
“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, that 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. I’m looking to bring tax rates down for everyone.”
— Former governor Mitt Romney, on CBS’s “Face the Nation,” June 17, 2012, also speaking about his tax plan
How are such opposing statements even possible?
The president declares on Thursday that his GOP rival will give the rich a 25 percent tax cut, citing an “independent study.”And then three days later, Romney insists that the rich will still “pay the same share of the tax burden.” In other words, no real tax cut.
Part of the explanation is that Obama is trying to nail Romney with specifics — and Romney is trying to avoid them. Let’s take a closer look.
First, let’s examine the tax burden under current law. When it comes to federal income taxes, the wealthy already pay most of the taxes. (The percentages change a bit when payroll taxes are included, but not much.) People at the lowest levels have a negative share because they get refundable tax credits. Here are the figures from the nonpartisan Tax Policy Center:
The Obama campaign this week launched an attack on Mitt Romney’s record as Massachusetts governor, calling particular attention to his records on jobs. We will fact check this latest Web video in detail in the coming days, but we came up with an interesting way to compare the job creation records of both men.
First a caveat: Attributing “job creation” to a politician, particularly a regional one, is a dicey proposition. The economy plays a huge role in the success or failure of various job initiatives. It takes time for policies to take effect, so a politician may reap the benefits of projects undertaken by his predecessor — or see his successor reap the rewards from his or her ideas.
A stronger case can be made that a president has more control over the economy than a governor, but we still think it is silly to date his job record from the moment he takes the oath of office. Nevertheless, that is the common political metric.
Take a look at the chart above, which uses seasonally adjusted Bureau of Labor Statistics employment data to show the change in the level of employment during the first 40 months of each man’s tenure as governor or president.
The similarities are actually more striking than the differences. Both men took office as the economy was plunging, but the hole (in percentage terms) turned out to be much deeper for Obama. The jobs picture started to turn around for both men at about the same time, but because Romney’s job deficit was comparatively smaller, he moved into positive territory sooner — though it still took him 36 months.
“I’ve also put forward a detailed plan that would reform and strengthen Medicare and Medicaid.”
— President Obama, remarks to newspaper editors, April 3, 2012
“I’d be willing to consider the President’s plan, but he doesn’t have one. That’s right: In over three years, he has failed to enact or even propose a serious plan to solve our entitlement crisis.”
— Former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney, remarks to newspaper editors, April 4, 2012
Welcome to the 2012 election campaign, now that it’s clear who the contestants will be. But with speeches like these, will it be possible to have a serious debate?
We recognize that politicians seek to define differences — and Obama and Romney spent most of their time attacking the other side — but we found the disconnect between the two speeches somewhat jarring. Let’s try to explain what these two men are saying.
Entitlements are such programs as Social Security and Medicare, and their costs will soar as the Baby Boom generation heads into retirement. On the surface, Romney’s attack appeared contradictory, because a few moments after attacking the president for not having a plan for solving the entitlement crisis, he faulted Obama’s proposals for reining in spending on Medicare as part of his health care law.