by Yuval Levin
Rather amazingly, it seems the Obama campaign has decided to stick with its panicked first-day response to Romney’s debate victory and keep insisting that Romney is lying about his own proposals, and that that’s the only way he could have made such a persuasive and powerful case for himself Wednesday night.
This is, first and foremost, an instance of something that a lot of conservatives in Washington have run across when debating liberals: Because they basically control the mainstream media, and because they have created for themselves a fictional conservative worldview (evident in many an Aaron Sorkin project and Barack Obama speech) rather than confront the actual conservative worldview, liberals are often caught off guard when faced with an actual argument for positions they disagree with. What we’ve seen in the wake of the debate is that some on the Left are so wedded to their imaginary right-wingers that when their actual opponents advance positions or make arguments that are different from those imaginary ones they will call those actual opponents fakes and liars. They believed their own caricature of Mitt Romney, and his unwillingness to play into it strikes them as dishonest. Or put another way: Confronted with evidence of their own dishonesty about who Romney is and what he stands for, they call the evidence a lie.
But it is not a lie. And the specific charges the Democrats have been making don’t do much to strengthen their case. As Katrina notes below, the Obama campaign’s complaints that Romney failed to live down to their caricature rest on three points: Romney’s argument that he is not proposing a $5 trillion tax cut, his argument that he proposes to help people with pre-existing conditions, and his argument that President Obama would take $716 billion out of Medicare. Let’s think about each one.
With regard to the first, as Patrick Brennan noted here yesterday, Romney has proposed a reduction in all tax rates of 20%, which would reduce federal revenue by roughly $360 billion a year. Over ten years, that’s $3.6 trillion. The Tax Policy Center got from $3.6 trillion to $5 trillion by also including the continuation of the existing Bush tax rates (i.e., Romney’s 20% reduction in each bracket would be from today’s rates) and the repeal of Obamacare’s new taxes in the amount by which he would reduce revenues. But the Bush tax rates are currently in place and the Obamacare taxes haven’t started (and Romney would also eliminate the spending they were intended to fund) so it’s not the case that keeping the former and averting the latter amounts to a tax cut, or at the very least it’s not the case in the same way as the reduction of the tax brackets. More importantly, Romney proposes to make up the lost revenue by reducing tax expenditures (those loopholes and deductions)—whether by capping total deductions etc. at some level designed to affect higher-income people or by working with Congress to pick and choose particular deductions and exclusions. That means, as Romney explained to the president Wednesday, that the rate reductions are not simply tax cuts—some people’s tax burdens (especially in the middle class) would decline, but those of others (with higher incomes) could actually increase some. The point is to have a more efficient tax system geared for growth—a system with lower rates and a broader base. So sorry folks, but between the assumptions of the Tax Policy Center study the Democrats rely on and the nature of what Romney is proposing, you just don’t have a $5 trillion tax cut proposal.
With regard to the second, the Democrats focus on the fact that the line in Romney’s health-care proposal that specifically uses the words “pre-existing conditions” describes a protection for people with “continuous coverage,” and so they suggest that’s all Romney would do for people with pre-existing conditions. But it’s not. He proposes a system that would make holding continuous coverage far easier and more affordable than it is now, and would then protect people who do so (to avoid the free-rider problem without an individual mandate). As a replacement for Obamacare, the Romney campaign has proposed a set of reforms that includes working with states to “ensure flexibility to help the chronically ill, including high-risk pools, reinsurance, and risk adjustment” (all of which are basically intended for people with pre-existing conditions); promoting a more competitive health sector in ways that “empower individuals and small businesses to form purchasing pools” and “prevent discrimination against individuals with pre-existing conditions who maintain continuous coverage”; and creating a real consumer market in coverage through a set of reforms that “end tax discrimination against the individual purchase of insurance,” “allow consumers to purchase insurance across state lines,” and “unshackle HSAs by allowing funds to be used for insurance premiums.” The idea, then, is to create a new set of arrangements in which it’s much easier to get insurance yourself and to keep it, give people a window (or an open season) to get insured in that system if they’re not already insured, and then after that (to create a powerful incentive for healthy people to buy coverage without a mandate) protect those who are from then on continuously insured, shielding them from pre-existing condition exclusions, and helping to fund the added cost of covering those with pre-existing conditions through state-run high-risk pools. It doesn’t make sense to just look at the language on prohibiting pre-existing condition exclusions for the continuously insured in the abstract—it has to be understood as part of a larger transformation of the system that Romney has proposed. This idea, including the protection from pre-existing condition exclusions for the continuously insured and the use of high-risk pools for them, has been part of conservative health-care proposals for a long time. Here is one excellent explanation of this broader vision, and here is a great discussion of how it would handle people with pre-existing conditions in particular. Romney’s proposals are very much in this spirit, and they do indeed involve, as he said, “a plan that deals with people with pre-existing conditions.”
With regard to the third, it’s just a plain fact that the Democrats took $716 billion out of Medicare and used it to pay for Obamacare. The idea that you can take $716 billion out of the fees paid in a fee-for-service system and not affect services is just ridiculous. And as the Medicare system’s own actuary has put it, these cuts will have very significant effect on access to care: 15% of Medicare providers are expected to stop taking Medicare patients, and 4 million seniors are expected to lose their Medicare Advantage coverage. Romney stated all these facts and figures, and they are all true. What exactly is the case for their being lies except that Democrats don’t want to hear them?
Refusing to confirm the lies told about him in months of Democratic ads doesn’t make Mitt Romney a liar. And insisting that Romney’s proposals are what his opponents say and not what he says himself to their face isn’t likely to be a very effective tactic for the Democrats.