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At Veep Debate, Giving New Life to a $5 Trillion Tax-Cut Argument

10/12/2012 09:22 am ET | Updated Dec 12, 2012
  • Dan Kennedy Associate professor of journalism at Northeastern University and WGBH News contributor

Who won? Other than Martha Raddatz? My takeaway is no different from what you'll see from just about any left-of-center opinion-monger today: Joe Biden crushed Paul Ryan on substance, but his mugging and smirking resulted in a less impressive win than he might otherwise have been able to claim. But Joe is Joe, and you take the bad with the good.

But there is one exchange from last night that I want to look at a little more closely because it involved the Romney tax plan, which would, among other things, cut income-tax rates by 20 percent. Near the beginning of the first presidential debate, President Obama charged -- as he often had -- that the plan would cost $5 trillion (over 10 years), with most of the benefits going to the wealthy.

Romney denied it, saying the rich would not see their taxes decline and that the money would be made up by closing loopholes and ending deductions. Obama seemed utterly discombobulated; and I don't think he ever recovered from Romney's sheer brazenness.

Last night, we received further confirmation that Obama was telling the truth. Yes, it's theoretically possible to close the $5 trillion gap, or at least some of it, by closing loopholes and eliminating deductions. But neither Romney nor Ryan has specified any. They want credit for proposals they haven't made.

"We want to work with Congress on how best to achieve this," Ryan said last night when pressed for specifics. And when moderator Martha Raddatz pressed Ryan on one idea -- repealing the deduction for home mortgages -- he made it sound as though that was a possibility for higher-income taxpayers, but that the middle class would be protected. (Here is the full transcript of the debate.)

Now, there are reasonable people who might support that. But can we agree that ending the home-mortgage deduction for anyone, even the rich, is a political non-starter? Do you think Eric Cantor and Mitch McConnell are going to go along with that? And can we further agree that Romney doesn't get to subtract anything from the $5 trillion gap unless he specifies exactly how he would end the deduction and how much money it would save?

Credit Raddatz, too, who showed that polite persistence works a lot better than whatever it was Jim Lehrer thought he was doing last week. She pushed Ryan on the Romney tax plan, she pushed Biden on Afghanistan and in general showed it's possible to guide a political conversation in an intelligent, reasonably civil (or at least as civil as Biden could manage) manner. (Jay Rosen has an interesting follow-up on Lehrer that casts him in a slightly better light -- and that makes Obama's passive performance look even worse.)

Ryan also repeated the much-touted -- and false -- allegation that Obama's "own deputy campaign manager acknowledged that it wasn't correct" to say the Romney tax cut would add $5 trillion to the deficit. Ryan was referring to Stephanie Cutter, who appeared on CNN the night after the first presidential debate. And though the headline of the item I'm linking to at RealClearPolitics is "Cutter Concedes $5 Trillion Attack on Romney Is Not True," you will see from the transcript that that's actually the opposite of what she said. Go ahead. Read the whole thing. It's not that long.

In an exchange with CNN anchor Erin Burnett, Cutter said that under the most aggressive assumptions about cutting loopholes and eliminating deductions, you might be able to get the gap down to $1 trillion. But as Cutter pointed out, and to repeat my own argument, Romney has not specified a single loophole or deduction. He's stuck at $5 trillion until or unless he does.

"The math does not work with what they're saying," Cutter told Burnett. "And they won't name those deductions, not a single deduction that they will close because they know that is bad for their politics ... Last night, he walked away from it, said he didn't have a $5 trillion tax cut. He does."

Will last night's debate have any lasting effect? Probably not. Stylistically, at least, Ryan did not deliver a disqualifying performance. Voters inclined toward Romney will not switch because they fear a Ryan presidency, as was the case four years ago when John McCain chose Sarah Palin. (Although Biden, as in-your-face as he was, did miss one big opportunity to move some votes. Ryan opposes abortion even in cases of rape, and though he has deferred to Romney on the issue, the whole point of being vice president is that you might become president on a moment's notice. What then?)

At best, Biden calmed the waters among panicked Democrats. Obama still has to deliver next week.

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