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A Project of The Annenberg Public Policy Center

New Obama Ad Repeats Old Distortions

A new Obama campaign ad repeats old distortions in a homestretch appeal to voters.

  • The ad claims Romney would make “catastrophic cuts to education,” but the ad cites an editorial that says Romney has promised to cut discretionary spending — not necessarily education.
  • The ad repeats the claim that Romney’s tax plan includes a massive tax cut for millionaires “while middle class families pay more.” Romney insists he won’t do that. The ad cites an analysis by the Tax Policy Center, which has cautioned against misinterpreting its report in just this way.

The ad — running in the swing states of Florida, Iowa, Ohio and Virginia — begins with the image of a man in a voting booth.

“In here, it’s just you. No ads, no debates, just you,” the narrator begins.

“So think about this,” the narrator continues. “Mitt Romney’s plan … [includes] catastrophic cuts to education. Millionaires will get one of the largest tax cuts ever while middle class families pay more.”

We’ve heard these claims before (see here and here, for starters). We’ll address each one separately.

‘Catastrophic Cuts to Education’?

When the narrator mentions “catastrophic cuts to education,” an image on the screen cites the Denver Post. It’s from the paper’s endorsement of Obama for president, and it does not claim that Romney would catastrophically cut education. Rather, it says Romney would make “catastrophic cuts” to discretionary spending.

Denver Post, Oct. 21: Romney’s approach is one of tax cuts for all, drastic Medicare reform, increased defense spending, and what would be catastrophic cuts to other discretionary programs. In the Republican primary, he said he couldn’t support a plan that included even $10 in cuts for every $1 in new revenue. To expect the country to balance its budget without additional revenue, in our view, is nothing short of fantasy.

Romney has been very clear about his plan to immediately cut nondefense discretionary spending by 5 percent. And Romney’s longer-term goal to balance the budget in “eight to 10 years” would require even deeper cuts to discretionary spending.

When Romney made this pledge in September, we spoke with Josh Gordon, policy director of the nonpartisan Concord Coalition, who told us that “it’s an unrealistic goal and requires cuts far beyond what they’ve been able to specify.” Marc Goldwein, senior policy director at the bipartisan Committee for a Responsible Federal Budget, told Bloomberg News that such a plan “would require some deep cuts beyond what he specified and beyond what I think most people would imagine.”

The left-leaning Center on Budget and Policy Priorities put out a report that concluded Romney’s proposals to cap total federal spending at 20 percent of gross domestic product (GDP) and boost defense spending to 4 percent of GDP would require cuts to nondefense programs other than Social Security by 22 percent in 2016.

And Jeff Zients, acting director of the White House’s Office of Management and Budget, said that the 2013 budget proposed by the House and championed by Romney’s running mate, Rep. Paul Ryan, would cut annual nondefense funding by 5 percent in 2013, but by 19 percent in 2014.

In lieu of specifics, Zients offered a vision of what could result if Romney were to distribute the cuts equally across the budget. Under that assumption, he wrote, the Department of Education would be cut by more than $115 billion over a decade.

But Romney said he wouldn’t apply the cuts evenly.

“But, of course, you wouldn’t cut programs on a proportional basis,” Romney said. “There would be some programs you would … eliminate outright.”

Again, there’s no dispute that Romney has proposed deep cuts to nondefense discretionary spending. But Romney has offered few details about what exactly he would cut to achieve his goal. His plan, Restore Fiscal Sanity to Washington, states that he would “eliminate or cut a wide range of programs, from Amtrak to the National Endowments for the Arts and Humanities.” (Many may recall Romney saying during the first debate that he would cut funding to PBS even though “I love Big Bird.”) Romney has also said he would eliminate federal funding for Planned Parenthood. But those are all relatively small federal discretionary expenditures.

Romney has dodged the hard-choice specifics by repeatedly saying only that his litmus test would be: “Is this program so critical that we should borrow money from China to pay for it?” In the second debate, Obama expressed frustration that “we haven’t heard from the Governor any specifics beyond Big Bird and eliminating funding for Planned Parenthood.”

Obama is correct that Romney has offered few specifics, but that doesn’t give his campaign the right to fill in the blanks with unpopular cuts like education.

Would ‘Middle Class Families Pay More’?

The ad’s claim that under Romney “millionaires will get one of the largest tax cuts ever while middle class families pay more” has been a popular refrain from the Obama campaign. It is based on an analysis from the Tax Policy Center that has become one of the most talked about and dissected reports of the political season. As we wrote in our analysis of the report back in August, the TPC report concluded that it is not mathematically possible for Romney to keep his promise to cut individual income tax rates by 20 percent across the board without either favoring the wealthy or losing revenue.

Romney has said that he would offset the losses in revenue by reducing tax deductions and credits, particularly on the wealthy, so that those at the top keep paying the “same share of the tax burden they’re paying now.” But — as with discretionary spending cuts — he has not been very specific about his plan to reduce tax deductions.

Again, the TPC analysis concluded Romney’s math doesn’t add up. In other words, Romney would have to compromise somewhere. The TPC analysis made the assumption that all of Romney’s proposed tax cuts are enacted. It then looked at the upper income tax deductions available to cut and concluded there weren’t enough to meet Romney’s goal of being revenue-neutral. In that scenario, the report stated, it would require a tax increase on middle-income earners. We should note, however, that there are other ways that Romney could choose to compromise. He could cut rates less than the promised 20 percent or let the federal deficit rise more, and still  not raise taxes on those making under $200,000. Or he could define the “middle” to be taxpayers much lower down on the income scale (also something he has rejected). Romney has repeatedly insisted that one of his guiding principles would be that he would not raise taxes on the middle class.

Donald Marron, director of the nonpartisan Tax Policy Center, says of his center’s study:
“I don’t interpret this as evidence that Governor Romney wants to increase taxes on the middle class in order to cut taxes for the rich, as an Obama campaign ad claimed. Instead, I view it as showing that his plan can’t accomplish all his stated objectives.”

— Robert Farley