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A Project of The Annenberg Public Policy Center

Romney’s Big Night

TAMPA, Fla. — In a speech heavy on anecdotal history but short on policy details, Mitt Romney avoided major falsehoods in making his case to the American public while accepting the presidential nomination at the Republican National Convention.

Even a key Democratic strategist, Bill Burton, a former press secretary for President Obama, tweeted shortly after the speech ended: “Romney actually avoided almost all of the lies from Ryan’s speech.” That was a reference to Rep. Paul Ryan’s address the night before, which we found to contain a number of false and misleading claims.

In Romney’s case, we found a few bits of exaggeration and puffery. He exaggerated the loss in family income that has occurred under Obama, for example, including 13 months of losses that actually occurred before the president took office. And he made a back-handed accusation that Obama has raised taxes on middle-class taxpayers, when in fact the president has lobbied for and signed several temporary reductions.

Likewise, we found some misleading claims from convention speakers who preceded Romney on the final day of the GOP convention. For example, former House Speaker Newt Gingrich repeated the bogus claim that Obama has “gutted” the welfare overhaul law, when all he has done is allow states to seek flexibility to experiment with applying the law’s work requirement.

And we even caught a mistake by actor/director Clint Eastwood, who put in a surprise appearance but wasn’t fully briefed on the proper way to spin statistics about unemployment.

Note to Readers

Our deputy managing editor, Robert Farley, is on the scene in Tampa at the convention center. This story was written with the help of the entire staff, based in Philadelphia and Washington, D.C. Next week, we will dispatch our managing editor, Lori Robertson, to Charlotte, N.C., for the Democratic convention. We intend to vet the major speeches at both conventions for factual accuracy, applying the same standards to both.

Middle Class ‘Crushed’

One section in particular drew our attention. Romney declared that “this Obama economy has crushed the middle class,” and rattled off some horrible-sounding statistics. But we found some of them to be exaggerated or in need of added context.

Romney: In the richest country in the history of the world, this Obama economy has crushed the middle class. Family income has fallen by $4,000, but health insurance premiums are higher, food prices are higher, utility bills are higher, and gasoline prices have doubled. Today more Americans wake up in poverty than ever before. Nearly one out of six Americans is living in poverty. Look around you. These are not strangers. These are our brothers and sisters, our fellow Americans.

Family income: Family income has not fallen by $4,000 under Obama, as Romney implied. That figure comes from a study by Sentier Research, and while most of the drop occurred after the president took office in January 2009, some of it (the study didn’t say exactly how much) occurred in the 13 months before that.

The study measured the drop in family income starting in December 2007, when the recession officially started, and ending in June 2012. The study noted that income has fallen more since the economic recovery officially began (in June 2009) than during the recession itself.

Poverty: It’s true that “more Americans wake up in poverty than ever before,” as Romney said. But it’s also true that there are more Americans, period.

The poverty rate — that is, the percentage of all Americans in poverty — is nowhere near a record, even for the relatively brief historical period since 1959, when the government first started measuring poverty.

The raw number of individuals in poverty in 2010 was 46.2 million, according to the most recent Census figures. And the poverty rate went up that year to 15.1 percent — the highest since 1993. But as Census noted, that “was 7.3 percentage points lower than the poverty rate in 1959, the first year for which poverty estimates are available.” Furthermore, Census noted that the number in poverty had increased for four consecutive years, so the rise started well before Obama took office.

Gasoline: Romney said “gasoline prices have doubled” since Obama took office. That’s correct, but only because gasoline prices were unusually depressed when Obama was inaugurated due to the recession and financial crisis.

The average price for regular gasoline was $3.78 last week, according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration, a bit more than double the $1.84 average on the week Obama was sworn in. But the average exceeded $4 a gallon for seven weeks during the summer of 2008, and it has never reached $4 under Obama.

Premiums: Romney said that “health insurance premiums are higher” under Obama. But premiums have been going up for years. Experts say the federal health care law was responsible for only a small part of the recent hike in employer-based plans.

The average cost of an employer-sponsored family insurance plan went up 9 percent from 2010 to 2011, according to the Kaiser Family Foundation’s annual survey. Several independent experts told us that rising medical costs were still the main culprit. The health care law, they said, was responsible for 1 point to 3 points of that 9-point increase.

And the reason for that is improved coverage. Insurance companies are required under the law to include free preventive care, coverage for adult children up to age 26, coverage for children regardless of preexisting conditions, and an increase in annual limits.

Rising premiums are nothing new. Between 2001 and 2011, family premiums for employer-sponsored plans went up 113 percent. Year to year the size of the change in premiums has varied, but it has always been in one direction: up.

Food: Romney said “food prices are higher” under Obama, and that’s also true, though not by a lot. The index measuring the average consumer price of all food and beverages (including restaurant meals) stood just 6.2 percent higher last month than it was when Obama took office, according to figures from the Bureau of Labor Statistics.

Another Middle-Class Falsehood

Romney said “unlike President Obama, I will not raise taxes on the middle class.” But Obama has not raised taxes on middle-income taxpayers, and, in fact, he has targeted tax cuts and credits to benefit them.

Among the president’s major tax cuts and credits:

  • Making Work Pay Tax Credit. For two years, 2009 and again in 2010, the stimulus law provided up to $400 to individuals earning up to $75,000, and up to $800 to couples earning up to $150,000.
  • Payroll tax cut. When the Making Work Pay credit expired, Obama successfully pushed Congress to cut the employee portion of the Social Security payroll tax in 2011 from 6.2 percent to 4.2 percent. The tax is applied to the first $110,100 of wages, and it resulted in an annual maximum savings of $2,200. The tax cut was extended through 2012.
  • American Opportunity Tax Credit. Also part of the stimulus, this is a college tuition tax credit. It modified and expanded the existing Hope Credit. It was intended for two years, but was extended through 2012. The full credit of $2,500 is available for individuals earning $80,000 or less and families earning $160,000 or less. The Hope Credit maximum was $1,800 in 2008.

The Republican nominee did not explain what he meant by his remarks. But some Republicans have claimed that the president’s health care law amounts to a tax on the middle class, because it imposes a penalty on those who do not buy health insurance. But, as we have written before, those arguments are overstated.

The nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office estimated that about 3 million taxpayers earning less than $120,000 will pay an average penalty of $667 by 2016.

Tax Exaggeration

Kerry Healey, who served as Romney’s lieutenant governor, boasted that Romney “cut taxes 19 times” as governor. But tax rates remained unchanged under Romney, and Club for Growth, a conservative anti-tax group, called his tax record “mixed,” because he raised hundreds of millions of dollars by increasing fees and closing loopholes in the corporate tax structure.

The Romney campaign’s list of 19 tax cuts includes some business tax cuts and a host of relatively minor cuts and credits — including a couple of two-day sales-tax holidays, which Club for Growth dismissed as “gimmicky.” The list also includes such things as a “fire safety tax deduction,” a “motion picture tax credit” and a “historic rehabilitation tax credit.”

In its white paper on Romney, Club for Growth singled out two tax cuts for praise: legislation he signed to prevent state residents from having to pay $275 million in retroactive capital gains taxes, and another bill that provided property tax relief for seniors.

But Club for Growth called his record “mixed” because of the new revenue he raised. As we have written before, Romney in his first year raised fees by more than $400 million, and generated another $150 million by closing loopholes.

Welfare Law ‘Gutted’

Former House Speaker Newt Gingrich dutifully repeated a meritless Romney claim, asserting that Obama “gutted” the 1990s’ welfare overhaul, and accusing him of “waiving” the law’s work requirement.

Gingrich: Tragically, President Obama gutted this achievement [welfare reform].  …Obama’s waiving of the work requirements in welfare reform is just one example of his direct repudiation of President Reagan’s values.

Gingrich didn’t elaborate or supply evidence of how Obama’s actions “gutted” the law. Gingrich would have been particularly qualified to do so — if there was substance to the accusation — since it was he who pushed the welfare bill through Congress when he was speaker and Bill Clinton was president. The fact is, Obama has simply allowed state governors to seek waivers from the law’s requirements if they can propose a more effective way to move people from welfare to work, and show that they can produce that result. Nothing has been waived yet.

And as we’ve noted, states have persistently fallen far short of achieving the law’s goal of putting at least half of recipients in jobs or job training. When Obama took office, only 29 percent of cash assistance recipients nationally were complying with the work requirement, and that had not changed as of the most recent figures.

Women-Filled Administration?

Jane Edmonds, former secretary of Massachusetts’ Department of Workforce Development, cherry-picked statistics to make Romney’s record on appointing women to government positions look better than it is. She wrongly said that the percentage of women in senior-level government jobs went up under Romney, but the figure actually declined slightly.

Edmonds: One area where he made a positive difference is in improving the representation of women in senior positions in Massachusetts State Government. Before Gov. Romney took office in 2003, women were significantly underrepresented among top roles in government, with 52 percent of the population but just 30 percent of the jobs.

Over the next two and a half years, 42 percent of the new appointments made by Governor Romney were women.

Edmonds’ figures are correct, and they are touted on the website of MassGAP (Massachusetts Government Appointments Project), a bipartisan coalition of women’s groups created in 2002 to increase the number of women appointed to top government positions. As Edmonds said, women made up 52 percent of the state’s population, but in September 2002, they held only 30 percent of top government positions. And 42 percent of Romney’s appointments — 14 of 33 appointments — were women during his first two and a half years as governor. But then the percentage of women being appointed to these jobs slipped, according to a 2007 study by MassGAP and the Center for Women in Politics and Public Policy at the University of Massachusetts Boston.

Over Romney’s entire tenure as governor, the percentage of female appointments was 31 percent. And overall, the percentage of women in senior-level government positions declined slightly, to 27.6 percent, according to the study.

The study said the MassGAP effort showed “promising” impact with the high percentage of Romney’s early appointments, but the later appointments didn’t show “a continued commitment to the selection of women for high-level posts.” The gains for women between 2002 and 2006 “were elusive,” the study said. “[W]omen at the end of the Romney administration did not hold a higher percentage of senior-level positions than when he took office.”

Make My Mistake

And we don’t want to ignore Clint Eastwood — who, unlike Obama, was not invisible at the convention.

Eastwood mistakenly said that 23 million Americans are “unemployed.” Actually, the figure is a little more than half that — 12.8 million in July, according to the most recent figures from the Bureau of Labor Statistics.

Eastwood didn’t phrase things as artfully as most other convention speakers. The often-used 23 million figure also includes 8.2 million who are employed in part-time jobs but say they are seeking full-time work, the so-called “under-employed.” And it also includes another 2.5 million who say they would like a job and would take one, but haven’t looked for one in the last four weeks.

We hate to nit-pick one of our favorite actor/directors, who is not all that used to the ways politicians inflate numbers without actually saying something false. (He could have said 23 million who “need work” or “are suffering from lack of jobs” and not been technically wrong.)

But then, Eastwood was mayor of Carmel-by-the-Sea, Calif., and so he knows something of politics. And other film stars have gone on to run for even higher office. To which we say: Go ahead, make our day.

— Robert Farley, with Eugene Kiely, Lori Robertson, Ben Finley and Brooks Jackson

Correction, Sept. 4: Our original story gave figures for the price of regular gasoline that were a few cents too high, both for the start of the Obama administration and for the week prior to the GOP convention. We also said incorrectly that the average price of regular gasoline had exceeded $4 per gallon for eight weeks, rather than seven, during 2008. The data to which we linked in that story were for an average for “all grades” of gasoline, not regular.