Romney’s ads on welfare have inspired furious criticism, with Bill Clinton attacking them both in an Obama campaign ad and in his speech to the Democratic convention. The press has largely joined in the attack. At issue are the work requirements that were added to welfare in the reform of 1996. States must see to it that roughly 40 percent of welfare recipients are working, looking for work, or engaged in some similar activity for at least 30 hours a week. The Obama administration announced this summer that the secretary of health and human services could grant waivers from this requirement. It subsequently said it would do so only for states that had plans to increase the number of people who leave welfare for work by 20 percent.
Romney’s ads say that the administration has “gutted welfare reform” and that people could get benefits without making any effort. On the second point, he is right: The number of people who could get benefits without working or doing anything similar could go up. The administration’s 20 percent goal (which it can revise at any time) is meaningless, since one way to increase the exit rate from welfare is to put more people on it in the first place. The first point turns on whether asserting a power to waive work requirements amounts to gutting them: a matter of opinion, not fact.
Obama’s misstatements have gotten less scrutiny, but do not seem less numerous or important than Romney’s. Where I live, in northern Virginia, Obama has been running ad after ad saying that Romney would ban abortion even in the cases of rape and incest. Romney says he would ban abortion if he could but make exceptions for those cases. Obama is relying on a 2007 debate answer in which Romney was asked whether he would ban “all” abortions if he could. Rape and incest weren’t mentioned by the questioner or Romney.
Obama has run many ads saying, as well, that Romney would raise taxes on the middle class. Romney denies he would do any such thing. Obama’s argument is that a think tank said that his numbers can’t add up — that it’s impossible to find enough tax breaks for the rich to offset the tax-rate reductions Romney favors — and that if Romney wanted to cut those tax rates without raising the deficit, he might have to raise middle-class taxes. The think tank said Obama was distorting its report by saying that Romney would definitely raise middle-class taxes. PolitiFact, one of the fact-checking groups, amazingly rated Obama’s claim “mostly true.” FactCheck.org said it was “not true.”
The president and his aides have repeatedly said that Romney’s Medicare plan would raise out-of-pocket expenses for senior citizens by $6,400. “Half-true,” says PolitiFact. No: An earlier version of the Ryan plan, which Romney never fully endorsed, could have had this result in a worst-case scenario. The latest version of the plan, which Romney has endorsed, could not have it. Under this plan, insurers would bid on how low a premium they could charge to cover Medicare’s traditional benefits. Seniors would receive funding support equal to the second-lowest bid. So there would always be a plan that cost them no more out of pocket than today, and a plan that cost them less.
The president is also running an ad that says that he has a plan to reduce the deficit by $4 trillion in “this decade.” Actually, his plan covers twelve years, and a disproportionate share of the cuts happen in the last year — so it’s a $2.9 trillion cut, as conservative econo-blogger Keith Hennessey points out. Obama is also including, as cuts, the elimination of expenses that were never going to be undertaken. He counts the drawdown in Iraq and Afghanistan toward his total.
The story was the same in 2004. Bush and Kerry both made statements contrary to fact. Bush’s record of truthfulness looked worse than Kerry’s only if approached with liberal presuppositions. That’s exactly how much of the press corps approached it. So there’s one more parallel to the presidential race eight years ago: Once again Mark Halperin is wrong.
— Ramesh Ponnuru is senior editor of National Review.