Two of the biggest fault lines of this week’s big presidential debate – those sound bites in which one candidate attacked the other’s record in a big way – were, in fact, faulty.
Both Mitt Romney and President Barack Obama took swipes at the other’s record that missed their factual marks, and left voters with misleading impressions about clean energy and tax cuts.
And after the camera lights were shut off and the voters tuned out, both campaigns backed away from their bosses’ simple declarative allegations and settled on more nuanced positions.
For their performances at Wednesday night’s big event, Obama and Romney get to share the first-ever double Whopper of the Week, a distinction awarded to a compelling example of political or governmental mistruth.
Romney earned his share of the award for saying that about half of the clean energy companies that the administration has funded have failed. Romney was hoping to score points off the now infamous Solyndra solar company that failed after receiving a $526 million federal loan guarantee.
Specifically, Romney charged that Obama had invested $90 billion in stimulus money in clean energy companies and “I think about half of them, of the ones that have been invested in, they’ve gone out of business.”
The former Massachusetts governor’s claim isn’t even remotely supported by the facts.
Romney appears to have been referring to the Section 1705 Energy Department program that provided billions in loan guarantees to clean energy companies. So far, only three of the 26 companies have failed, although a handful of others are struggling, according to recent congressional testimony.
That means only about 12 percent of the recipients have gone out of business, a far cry from the 50 percent that Romney claimed.
After several media organizations challenged the candidate’s claim, the Romney campaign clarified Thursday that he was referring only to the first seven loan recipients, of which three have failed. There’s no good explanation of why he left out the other 19 recipients.
And no matter the parsing, Romney’s claim when the cameras were running misled the public.
His counterpart isn’t blameless, either.
Obama repeatedly accused Romney on Wednesday night of proposing a $5 trillion tax cut that isn’t fully paid for.
To begin with, Romney’s plan doesn’t assign a specific dollar figure to his tax cuts, instead setting a broader goal of reducing income tax rates by about 20 percent. The $5 trillion figure, at best, is an extrapolation that doesn’t take into account offsets Romney is proposing.
Specifically, Romney proposes to reduce income tax rates by 20 percent and eliminate the estate tax and the alternative minimum tax. The Washington-based Tax Policy Center estimates that would reduce federal tax revenues by $465 billion in 2015, which if not offset, could add up to somewhere near $5 trillion if multiplied over 10 years.
But Romney has been adamant he plans to pay for much of the tax cuts by reducing or eliminating tax credits, deductions and exemptions. The goal is a simpler tax code that raises the same amount of money as the current system, but does it in a more efficient manner, he has said. He hasn’t offered a specific plan to show how he’d make it revenue neutral.
Obama’s attacks during the debate and the repeated use of the $5 trillion figure distorted the truth by failing to take into account Romney’s clearly stated commitment for offsets.
A full day after the debate – when pressed on CNN – Obama campaign strategist Stephanie Cutter finally backed down from the figure.
“Well, okay, stipulated, it won't be near $5 trillion, but it's also not going to be the sum of $5 trillion in the loopholes that he's going to close,” Cutter told CNN’s Erin Burnett.
Their simplified, declarative accusations, made when tens of millions of people are tuned in, followed by back-pedalling by their surrogates when many fewer people are watching, earns the president and his GOP challenger this week’s Whopper.