President Obama’s speech today was long on words and short on new ideas. I know some pundits are disappointed but, as I wrote earlier today, they shouldn't be. Obama has laid out his philosophy and proposals. So has Mitt Romney. The campaign is all about contrasting the two. And, boy, is the contrast stark.
Obama would preserve the safety net and most other federal programs, including the expansions of health insurance under the Affordable Care Act, then impose a combination of (relatively) moderate cuts to some federal programs and (relatively) moderate tax increases on the wealthy. Romney would dramatically reduce government, including the safety net, and dramatically reduce taxes, mostly to benefit the wealthy.
That all sounds very esoteric, so let me put it in human terms. The difference between Romney’s vision, rather than Obama’s, would be many fewer people with health insurance, into the tens of millions; less money for a variety of federal programs, including ones that help young people pay for college, enable poor people to get food, and provide public safety; fewer dollars for repairing broken down bridges, upgrading public transportation and other infrastructure investments; and much, much lower taxes for wealthy Americans. (The effects on the economy would be dramatically different, as well, although those effects are more difficult to state unequivocally, because they are more subject to assumptions and predispositions about economic theory.)
When Obama laid out differences, he said "This is not spin. This is not my opinion. These are facts." That prompted an outburst of snark from conservatives on twitter:
James Taranto: “This is not political spin.” That means it’s political spin.
John Podhoretz: He always gets into trouble when he says “This is not my opinion.”
David Hogberg: This is not spin, not my opinion, these are facts = It is spin, it is my opinion, they are lies.
I try to avoid highlighting twitter comments, because it's difficult to capture nuance in 140 characters. (I've certainly struggled with it.) I also get the joke. Obama uses those expressions a lot and, yes, they get a little tiresome. But that's always how conservatives respond when Obama cites evidence: They dismiss it as spin, as if he made up all those facts and figures.
Obama made three big claims about Romney’s agenda, starting with a claim about Romney’s proposed tax cut:
an independent study said 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.
That comes straight from a study by the Tax Policy Center, a project of the Urban Institute and Brookings Institution. Just to make sure the citation was correct, I checked with Howard Gleckman, a resident fellow at Urban. He confirmed it.
Obama also talked about the impact of repealing the Affordable Care Act and transforming Medicaid into a limited block grant (i.e., giving the states a pre-determined amount of money).
Not only does their plan eliminate health insurance for 33 million Americans by repealing the Affordable Care Act, according to the independent Kaiser Family Foundation, it would also take away coverage from another 19 million Americans who rely on Medicaid, including millions of nursing home patients and families who have children with autism and other disabilities.
As Obama says, this comes straight from the Kaiser Family Foundation, which commissioned a study by experts at the Urban Institute. That study actually produced three separate estimates. Obama could easily have cited the largest of the estimates, that 27 million people would lose Medicaid, above and apart from those who lose coverage if the Affordable Care Act goes away. Instead, he chose the middle estimate of 19 million. (More background on this issue here.)
Finally, Obama described the effects of capping federal spending at 20 percent of gross domestic product, while setting aside 4 percent for defense spending.
They haven’t specified exactly where the knife would fall, but here’s some of what would happen if that cut that they proposed was spread evenly across the budget.
10 million college students would lose an average of a thousand dollars each on financial aid. 200,000 children would lose the chance to get an early education in the Head Start program. There would be 1,600 fewer medical research grants for things like Alzheimer’s and cancer and AIDS; 4,000 fewer scientific research grants, eliminating support for 48,000 researchers, students and teachers.
Now, again, they have not specified which of these cuts they choose from, but if they want to make smaller cuts to areas like science or medical research, then they’d have to cut things like financial aid or education even further.
Obama's source here is analysis from the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities. Note that he summarized the paper’s finding appropriately, with the necessary nuance: Because Romney refuses to specify where he’d cut, it’s impossible to know precisely which programs would get fewer funds and which would not. Of course, if Romney wants to spare certain programs, he’ll have to cut more deeply into others—just like Obama said.
Do conservatives have an actual response? Do they think the researchers at Brookings, the Center on Budget, Kaiser, and Urban—all of them non-partisan, well-respected institutions—are wrong? Fine. These conservatives should say so and they should back up their arguments with compelling evidence. I'll be surprised if they can. (Hogberg, a smart journalist who covers policy, has said he'll give it a shot. Good for him.)
None of this means Obama never spins. And none of this means conservatives can't make the case for these Republican proposals. The agenda Romney and allies like Paul Ryan have put forward reflect a series of core beliefs: that public programs are generally wasteful, that government benefits tend to reward irresponsibility, and that lower taxes on the rich make the economy much stronger. They also think the Republican plans are more likely to reduce deficits.
I take a different view and find the deficit argument particularly laughable, given the party's history of running up huge deficits and ongoing refusal to be specific about how they'd hit their deficit targets. Conservatives and the Republicans they tend to support are welcome to make their best case, but they are not welcome to deny what their agenda actually entails.
Update: I made a few wording changes, for the sake of clarity, and added a sentence making clear that sometimes Obama spins, although I'd argue he does it far less frequently than Romney and the Republicans.
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