(This was originally written for the print edition of The Washington Post, but alas, space ran short last night so we are posting this as a special column on the blog.)
The candidates running for the Republican nomination for president have now had four debates, with a fifth scheduled for Thursday. As usual, they will come armed with an arsenal of facts, often designed to put the incumbent, President Obama, in the worst possible light.
The problem is, many of these facts are suspect. Here then is a guide to dubious claims you might hear Thursday—and, if not then, probably a debate after that.
Obama’s health-care law
Both Rep. Michele Bachmann (Minn.) and former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney have repeatedly charged that Obama “stole” or “cut” $500 billion from Medicare and used the money to fund his health care law. The claim rests on a technicality.
Under Obama’s health-care law, Medicare spending continues to go up every year. The law tries to identify ways to save money, and so the $500 billion figure comes from the difference over 10 years between anticipated Medicare spending and the changes the law makes to reduce spending.
The savings are wrung from health-care providers, not Medicare beneficiaries. These spending reductions presumably would be a good thing, since virtually everyone agrees that Medicare spending is out of control.
In fact, when House Republicans passed their budget this year, lawmakers retained all but $10 billion of the nearly $500 billion in Medicare savings. This suggests the policies enacted to achieve these spending reductions were not that objectionable to GOP lawmakers.
In the bill, the anticipated savings from Medicare are used to help offset some of the anticipated costs of expanding health care for all Americans. Republicans say they would devote the savings to Medicare, but all government money is fungible.
Another frequent claim is that the Congressional Budget Office, the nonpartisan scorekeeper of Washington, documented how the health-care law will “kill” jobs. Sometimes, a number is attached to this claim — 800,000.
Again, candidates are taking a highly technical (and obscure) point and turning it into a scary fact.
The CBO in August 2010 estimated that over the next decade the new health-care law would reduce the number of overall workers in the United States by one-half of 1 percent, which translates into 800,000 people. But that’s not the same as saying it would “kill” that many jobs.
In dry economic language, buried in a few paragraphs in a long report, the CBO essentially said that some people who are now in the workforce because they need health insurance would decide to stop working because the health-care law guarantees they would have access to health care. (As an example, think of someone who is 63, a couple of years before retirement, who is still in a job only because he or she is waiting to get on Medicare at age 65.)
Frankly, the number might seem big—800,000—but the United States is a big country. One-half of one percent is basically a rounding error.
Bachmann is also fond of claiming that Obama hid $105 billion in the health-care bill that is just coming to light. There is no evidence to support this claim. The money for these programs was clearly described and analyzed by the CBO before the legislation was voted into law.
Romney, for his part, tries to shield himself from the comparisons to his own Massachusetts health-care law. For instance, he once said Obama’s law had 2,700 pages, compared to just 70 pages for his bill. (Not so.) More recently, he has argued that his plan “covered 8 percent of the people, the uninsured” while Obama’s plan “is taking over 100 percent of the people.” But he’s mixing apples and oranges. Both try to cover the uninsured and impose an individual mandate on people to buy insurance in order to do so.
International affairs has generally not been a major topic in the debates, but there is general agreement on two facts—that Obama went on “an apology tour,” groveling to the rest of world for the sins of America, and that he has demanded that Israel return to its de facto border before the Six-Day War in 1967.
Regarding Israel, the president in May did give a controversial speech, in which he said the 1967 border should be a starting point for negotiations between the Israelis and Palestinians, with agreed swaps of territory.
A few days later, Obama further clarified his comments to make clear he was not saying the lines should be Israel’s border. Israeli Prime Minister Binjamin Netanyahu later thanked Obama for his clarification in a speech before a joint session of Congress. In effect, then, the candidates, especially Bachmann, have tried to keep an old controversy going.
As for the apology tour, it never happened. A careful review of all of Obama’s overseas statements found that they had been taken out of context or had been misquoted. Frequently, Obama expressed sentiments not much different than those of George W. Bush on overseas trips.
Early in his presidency, Obama often tried to draw a rhetorical distinction between his policies and Bush’s policies, a common practice when the presidency changes parties. The shift in policies, in fact, might have been more dramatic from Bill Clinton to Bush than from Bush to Obama, given how Obama has largely maintained Bush’s approach to fighting terrorism.
The poor state of the U.S. economy is an albatross around Obama’s reelection chances, and so the GOP attacks are more effective—and may resonate more with voters. But often, the candidates harm their case with over-the-top rhetoric.
Rep. Ron Paul of Texas, for instance, declared “the country’s bankrupt and nobody wanted to admit it.” But under no definition is the United States “bankrupt.” The nation has a large debt as a percentage of its economy, and that is an issue of concern. But it is able to pay its debts, and its bonds are still regarded as the gold standard in the financial markets — which is why investors have flocked to buy U.S. Treasuries during this period of market turmoil.
Romney, meanwhile, likes to say “we’re inches away from no longer having a free economy.” That’s a pretty strong – and unsupportable — statement that is disputed by any number of studies of global economies.
Texas Gov. Rick Perry has claimed that Obama’s stimulus plan created “zero jobs.” But every study – and there are at least eight — has found that at least some jobs were created, and many were saved. The problem is not enough jobs have been created to boost the nation’s total number of jobs.
In fact, the number of overall jobs has declined by 1.9 million since Obama’s stimulus bill was passed into law more than two years ago. Moreover, Obama is on track to have the worst job record of any U.S. president since World War II. He may even become the first president in the modern era with no net jobs created during his first term — which, by any stretch of the imagination, is a stunning statistic.
With facts like that on hand, one wonders why GOP candidates feel the need to exaggerate.