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Mitt Romney Can Lose for Winning

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Mitt Romney won last night's debate by pundit scorecards. He'll lose the week, though, as the media begins to digest his claims and press him for the specifics of his "plan" at odds with his last eighteen months of campaigning, and frequently, reality.

Much of the reviews last night were about theatrics. Mr. Romney was giving the performance of his life.  Anything less and he would hit a death spiral from which his campaign would not recover.

Yet the week following this debate will be about uncovering the substance of it.  Here, Mr. Obama is clearly the winner. Mr. Obama may not have had much flash last night, but he let Romney be Romney, and Mitt's mendacity knows, apparently no bounds.

"[I]n the end, this isn't or shouldn't be about theater criticism, it should be about substance, says economist Paul Krugman. "And the fact is that everything Obama said was basically true, while much of what Romney said was either outright false or so misleading as to be the moral equivalent of a lie."

Most of the morning fact checking, from the Washington Post to the New York Times and beyond, has been debunking Romney's very slickly packaged pack of half-truths, shading and what can only be called lies.

The key to Romney rhetoric last night is that his assumptions about how he can balance the revenue and expenditures sides of the government's ledger are entirely based on growing the economy at a rate that even conservative economists and publications have discredited.

It's trickle-down economics with a new coat of paint.  Bloomberg News, hardly a liberal bastion, published an article this morning which calls Romney's growth assumptions patently false:

"Romney's tax plan can't add up under congressional budget-scoring rules that don't let him assume that economic growth will generate higher tax revenue."

The non-partisan Tax Policy Center flunked Romney's assumptions in an August, 2012 paper.  According to Bloomberg:

"The study found that, in 2015, $86 billion of the tax burden would be shifted to the middle class to keep the plan from increasing the deficit."

That's a huge load.  The Brookings Institution likewise discredited the assumptions that Mr. Romney used in the debate last night back in August:

"Our recent paper examined the effects of doing what Gov. Romney has explicitly proposed to do: cut income tax rates by 20%, enhance incentives for saving and investment, eliminate the alternative minimum tax and estate tax, and maintain revenue neutrality. We found that meeting those goals would lead to lower taxes on families with income above $200,000. Maintaining revenue neutrality would consequently require net tax increases on other households."

"Trickle down government," as Romney called it, has a much longer and provable history. Even Ronald Reagan used stimulus and billions in West Coast defense sector job growth to kick start his moribund economy.

Ezra Klein's Wonkblog looked at studies on the stimulus, 9 of 11 of which found that it has a "significant positive effect."

Romney launched into a populist theme about jobs, much as the Republican Congress did in 2010. He said that he would create more than 12M new jobs. The Washington Post reports:

"But, in fact, the number is less impressive than it sounds. This pledge amounts to an average of 250,000 jobs a month, a far cry from the 500,000 jobs a month that Romney claimed would be created in a "normal recovery." In recent months, the economy has averaged about 150,000 jobs a month."

Mr. Obama has a solid record on job growth in the private sector for every month of his presidency after the bottom of the crisis, about five months into his presidency. The Washington Post further notes:

"Moody's Analytics, in an August forecast, predicts 12 million jobs will be created by 2016, no matter who is president. (See page 51.) And Macroeconomic Advisors in April also predicted a gain of 12.3 million jobs."

Where has the major job shrinkage over the last four years been?  In government.  More than 169,000 in the last year alone, after the George W. Bush Administration had one of the bigger government growth run-ups in history.

Government shrinkage under Obama should be welcome news to small "g" government Republicans, but it won't be for Mr. Romney. The biggest job bleed was 100,000 teachers at the county and city level of government.[1]

That would be the same 100,000 teacher jobs which President Obama proposed to add back to revenue-strapped states and school districts last night.  Mr. Romney's solution last night? Let the states figure it out.

This fundamental core difference in Republican and Democratic dogma is based upon a false assumption by the GOP and Mr. Romney that all states are fundamentally excellent and equal.

Massachusetts, a far more wealthy state than Mississippi, can do more with its tax base.  The federal government fills in the cracks in sparsely populated states like Wyoming or Montana, and endemically poor states like Mississippi and New Mexico, to make sure that citizens in all 50 United States have relatively more equal access to a quality education, health care, and retirement benefits.  The federal government provides a level playing field to insure all of our citizens, regardless of where they live, aren't disadvantaged by the state in which they were born.

Which reinforces Mr. Obama's oft repeated observation, under appreciated by the punditry last night and this morning, that we have to prioritize.

Mr. Romney pledged $2.1T to keep the defense contractors in fat contract jobs for projects even though the Pentagon doesn't need them. He did not shy away from that pledge last night.

"Romney's plan calls for linking the Pentagon's base budget to Gross Domestic Product, and allowing the military to spend at least $4 dollars out of every $100 the American economy produces." [2]

$2.1T would pay for a lot of teachers, schools, better books, health care, Head Start and other civilian programs, including, yes funding Big Bird. It could also retire a lot of debt.

Romney did not explain how he would pay for it or why it was a priority for a nation staring at $15T in debt, most of which was either racked up by the Bush Administration or collateral damage from that Republican rule. CNN reports:

"Romney has listed a few specific cuts he would make in discretionary spending, but they are a fraction of the extra defense spending he proposes," said Jeffrey Vanke, a senior policy analyst at the Committee for a Responsible Federal Budget.

Other budget experts expressed similar concerns about Romney's proposal, including Peter Singer, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, who said the plan for additional spending does not "reflect fiscal reality."

If you score the debate based on substance, not flash, then Mr. Obama's assertions that we have to make choices that benefit average Americans and help rebuild the middle class are right on target to the vast majority of the population, while Mr. Romney's faint praise of the middle class seems to be largely lip service.

Mr. Romney proved himself to be the same scrappy debater that he has been over the primaries and past campaigns.  It's nice flash when you come into the ring.  Barack Obama is the Muhammad Ali of politicians, though.

Romney's dance may win him the headlines this morning, but, as we've seen from those who really break apart what is being said at these debates, he will lose the debate on the same problems with substance, and numbers that range from false to fanciful.

Obama's grilling on the numbers and the math are perhaps a delayed K.O. punch. The media is good on style, not substance. It will take the lesser of our journalistic lights a few days to break down all the wonky factoids of the debate to figure out that Romney is full of sound and fury, but still signifies nothing.

My shiny two.