The American people face an important choice in November. They will either re-elect President Barack Obama for another four-year term, or they will replace him with Governor Mitt Romney. Rather than recapitulate the case against a second term for the incumbent, let's scrutinize eight of the top prevailing arguments against electing his Republican challenger. Each of the following anti-Romney indictments has been advanced -- explicitly, or through surrogates -- by the president's campaign and the Democratic Party. Below you'll find my sincere attempt to address these criticisms in a balanced and honest way, even as I openly and transparently admit my conservative leanings at the outset. I will attempt to rate each claim as as either true, fair, unfair, or false -- and will aim to offer verification of my facts through embedded links to credible, reliable, and non-partisan sources:
Criticism #1 - Mitt Romney seems secretive because he won't release more than two years of his personal tax returns. Rating: Fair and mostly true. (SEE UPDATE).
Governor Romney is a very wealthy man, with an estimated net worth in excess of $200 million. Born poor, Romney's father worked hard and ultimately became a hugely successful executive in the auto industry. He was later elected governor of Michigan, then fell short in an unsuccessful presidential bid. When George Romney died, he left a large inheritance to his children, including Mitt, who donated his share to charity. Mitt Romney earned his own sizable fortune over a lengthy and "sterling" private sector career in finance. Now that he is running for president, critics have questioned why Romney hasn't released more than two years of tax returns, citing a precedent set by his father in 1968. No one disputes that Romney has filed all of the legally-required financial disclosure documents for a presidential run, but he has declined to make any more tax records public. Some conservatives, including yours truly, have urged him to divulge more information. Given the feeding frenzy among his opponents over this issue, it is very unlikely that he will comply at this stage. What we do know is that Romney hasn't encountered any trouble from the IRS -- suggesting legal compliance -- and that the McCain campaign Vice Presidential vetters who waded through decades of Romney's tax documents in 2008 have stated Romney's taxes are paid in full (and the former governor may have even slightly overpaid in some instances). Romney also asserts he hasn't paid a lower income tax rate than 13 percent in the last ten years, but that number cannot be confirmed without further documentation. The Romney's have donated prodigious amounts of money to charity over that period, including to his church, veterans groups, and medical research foundations.
[UPDATE 9/21/12 - Romney has now dealt with this issue much more comprehensively. He has complied with tax law, paid nearly double the average American's effective rate over two decades, and has given very generously to charity.]
Criticism #2 - During his tenure at Bain Capital, Mitt Romney shipped American jobs overseas, was a "pioneer" in the practice of outsourcing, and may have committed a felony by lying to the SEC. Rating: False.
The Obama campaign has spent tens of millions of dollars on negative advertisements accusing Romney of being an outsourcer of American jobs. Independent fact-checkers have exhaustively dismantled this claim; FactCheck.org ruled that "no evidence" exists to support the charge, and the Washington Post awarded the ads "Four Pinocchios." When the Romney campaign began to push back against the discredited allegations, a top Obama aide suggested that Romney might have committed a felony by lying to the federal government about his departure from Bain Capital. Romney left Bain in 1999 to save the 2002 Olympics in Salt Lake City. (When Romney took over, the games were tainted by a bribery scandal and drowning in debt). In taking on this challenge, he gave up all active managing duties at the company, even as he remained its titular CEO. The Obama campaign used this leave of absence to muddy the waters about Romney's Bain timeline, culminating in the "felony" line. Fact-checkers again smacked down Team Obama, accusing them of "blowing smoke," without evidence. They determined that Romney left his managing role at Bain in early 1999 -- the same conclusion reached by an independent, taxpayer-funded commission in Massachusetts, which investigated the same question in 2002 when Romney was running for governor.
During the uproar over the Obama administration's unprecedented birth control mandate, some Democrats suggested that Republicans were intent on "banning" birth control. In fact, Republicans sought to prevent religious organizations and employers from being forced to pay for other people's contraception, in violation of their First Amendment right to freedom of religion. Conservatives simultaneously argued that contraceptives have been widely available and affordable for decades, and should remain that way. At a Republican primary debate (prior to the mandate), Romney put it succinctly: Contraception is "working just fine. Just leave it alone." On abortion, Romney and his running mate are both pro-life, as is a narrow majority of Americans. Romney does, however, make exceptions for the rare cases of rape and incest, and if the mother's life is at risk. A campaign ad from Barack Obama states that Romney does not make these exceptions. Politifact, a left-leaning fact-checker, has tagged this commercial with a "pants on fire" score for its dishonesty. The spot is still running in swing states. A Buzzfeed article making similar false claims about Paul Ryan's views has also been corrected.
Criticism #4 - Mitt Romney evaded paying taxes for a decade, and was party to the "largest tax avoidance scheme in history." Rating: False.
The first allegation was leveled by Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, a Democrat of Nevada. Reid initially peddled the rumor to reporters, then repeated it on the floor of the Senate. He offered no proof, nor any indication of who his alleged "source" might be. Given Romney's good standing with the IRS and Reid's refusal to substantiate his assertions, fact-checkers firmly rejected them. "Four Pinocchios," declared the Washington Post. "Pants on fire," determined left-leaning Politifact. Several Romney defenders have also noted that Reid himself steadfastly refuses to hand over his own tax returns, despite being the most powerful man in the Senate. He also voted to confirm Treasury Secretary Tim Geithner, in spite of his documented tax problems. On the "tax avoidance scheme" question -- raised in an Obama campaign ad -- FactCheck.org dug through the case and rendered this verdict on the Obama campaign's charge: "There is so much deceit here, we don't even know where to start."
Criticism #5 - Mitt Romney's tax plan would cut rates for the wealthy, but raise taxes on middle class families by over $2,000. Rating: Unfair, despite some fair criticisms.
Pointing to a nominally non-partisan study from the Tax Policy Center, President Obama says Mitt Romney's tax reforms are regressive. He argues they would either hit middle income Americans with higher taxes, or add to deficits. The TPC paper declares Romney's plan "mathematically impossible" without crossing into at least one of these undesirable outcomes. In fact, the study admits that it does not directly score Romney's plan because his proposals lack certain important specifics. This is a fair criticism. To compensate for this missing data, the researchers plugged in assumptions of their own (sometimes ignoring Romney's plainly stated positions), and failed to factor in other countervailing elements of Romney's agenda. This is not fair. The American Enterprise Institute and the Wall Street Journal have described scenarios under which Romney's plan is entirely feasible, based on the arithmetic and evidence from recent political history. Romney's plan itself involves lowering tax rates among all income brackets by 20 percent, as well as bringing down the corporate tax rate (the highest in the industrialized world). He would "pay for" these cuts by limiting and eliminating loopholes and deductions, particularly for higher income earners. These details have not yet been made clear -- a glaring weakness. In principle, this approach would broaden the tax base, simplify the tax code, and lower overall rates. It is a model akin to the recommendations made by the president's fiscal commission, which Obama has chosen to ignore. President Obama has already raised taxes on lower and middle income Americans on several occasions, particularly with the 'Obamacare' mandate tax.
Criticism #6 - Mitt Romney's closure of a steel plant in Kansas City led to the death of a woman with cancer. Rating: False.
This charge is the most incendiary we've seen in the current campaign cycle, bordering on outright slander. President Obama's campaign introduced this line attack on a conference call with the press, and on its official website. The president's formally-endorsed SuperPAC -- run by a former White House spokesman -- picked up on the charge, enshrining it in a very controversial ad. It was roundly pummeled by independent fact-checkers and media organizations. In short, the star of the ad (steelworker Joe Soptic) was laid off in 2001, eight years after Mitt Romney's Bain Capital invested in his faltering factory in a bid to save the business, and two years after Romney left Bain. Soptic was laid off by Bain's new management, including a man named Jonathan Lavine, who is now a major Obama donor. Five years after the plant closure, in 2006, Soptic's wife was diagnosed with cancer and died shortly thereafter. It was later revealed that Mrs. Soptic had retained her own insurance after her husband had been laid off. Her coverage dropped when she eventually left her job, prior to being diagnosed. The insinuation that Romney had anything to do with her death is egregiously misleading and low. "Outrageous," fumed CNN. "Four Pinocchios," groaned the Washington Post. "A disgrace," concluded Obama's hometown newspaper, the Chicago Tribune. Obama's SuperPAC has stood by the ad, spending millions to put it on the air in swing states. The Obama campaign and White House have refused to condemn it, eventually getting tangled up and caught in a clear lie about their knowledge of the Soptic family's story. Time's Mark Halperin branded the entire episode the lowest moment of the 2012 campaign in a heated MSNBC appearance.
Criticism #7 - Mitt Romney and Paul Ryan's Medicare plan "kills Medicare." Rating: False.
An email blast from a Democratic campaign committee resurrected this claim, which was ranked by left-leaning Politifact as the 2011 political "lie of the year." Other Democrats have hedged slightly, modifying their accusation to say Romney and Ryan would "end Medicare as we know it." The DNC Chairwoman has described the plan as a "death trap" for seniors, and a "tornado" tearing through nursing homes. This is hysteria, and bears no relation to reality. For the full facts on the dueling Medicare reform visions, read this piece. The basics: According to its own actuaries, Medicare is slated to become insolvent within 12 years. This would result in major cuts for current seniors, and the implosion of the program for future generations (who are still paying into it, under penalty of law). In other words, basic math will "end Medicare as we know it" soon, absent reform. Everyone acknowledges this hard reality, including the president. The Romney-Ryan solution is modeled on a bipartisan proposal co-authored by Paul Ryan and liberal Democratic Senator Ron Wyden of Oregon. The plan grandfathers in all citizens 55 years old or older, guaranteeing no changes from current policy. For younger Americans, Medicare benefits would be paid out under a federal premium support program, as future seniors would choose among a menu of options. One of these options would remain the traditional fee-for-service Medicare model. The others would be private plans, competing for seniors' business. The Obama plan is quite different. The president transferred $700 Billion in Medicare cuts in order to partially fund his new Affordable Care Act, or "Obamacare." This maneuver is resulting in real cuts to current seniors. According to the federal Medicare accountants, it strips four million seniors out of the popular "Medicare Advantage" program, and cuts government reimbursements to care-givers and hospitals. Medicare's chief actuary estimated this could result in the closure of 1 in 6 hospitals that treat seniors. As for the future, long-term solvency of the program for future generations, the president has not proposed anything that even approaches the level of a meaningful plan.
Criticism #8 - The Romney team is running a "dirty" and dishonorable campaign. Rating: Fair or unfair (comparative "dirtiness" is in the eye of the beholder).
In light of many of the facts outlined above, it may seem astounding that the Obama campaign would cast themselves as the victims of a nasty campaign. Nevertheless, in pushing back against strong condemnation of the 'cancer' ad, numerous Obama aides cited a Romney commercial on welfare reform as a counter-balancing example. In essence they've argued, how can you heap opprobrium on us over a spot run by a SuperPAC we can't control (never mind that they introduced the cancer attack), when the Romney campaign itself is running these welfare ads? The spot in question focuses on a quiet executive action taken by the Obama administration's Department of Health and Human Services in early July. The decision ignored explicit language in the 1996 Clinton-era welfare reform act by opening up the law's federal work requirements to state-by-state waivers. This move allows states to alter or water-down the black-and-white, non-negotiable standards set forth in the statute. The meaning of the legislative language has been confirmed by the non-partisan Congressional Research Service. Romney's ads pushed too far by drawing a direct line between Obama and potential state decisions based on the newly increased leeway. The Republican spots labeled the possible hollowing out of work requirements at the state level "Obama's plan." This is an exaggeration, but the larger issue is rooted in fact. Politifact awarded the Romney campaign a "pants on fire" rating for the ad, even though they accepted one of Romney's central arguments, and chose not to address the core question of whether the administration's action was lawful. ABC News' fact-check was more even handed, scolding Romney for exaggerations, but acknowledging that his concerns may soon be proven justified. In any case, the Obama campaign seems to believe that this welfare ad is on par with the comprehensively debunked and sleazy 'cancer' spot, roughly evening out to a "tie" of sorts. I suppose this comes down to a judgment call. It may also be useful to look at the sheer dollar amounts spent on negative advertising, the percentage of ads that are negative, and illustrative events such as Vice President Biden's recent racially-charged "chains" remark.
Conclusion: As the election approaches, it is relatively apparent that President Obama will continue to hew to his campaign's early strategy to (figuratively) "kill Romney." His approval ratings on the biggest issues of the day -- jobs, the economy and deficits -- are upside-down, and sinking. His most well-known policies are unpopular and have failed to live up to the promises upon which they were built. Therefore, his best -- perhaps only -- path to victory entails disqualifying his opponent in the eyes of voters. His party's attacks and negative ads against Romney have primarily, though not entirely, focused on the themes and allegations addressed in this column. I think it's striking how many of these criticisms have been deemed to be outright falsehoods by independent news organizations and fact-checkers. Several more are at least patently unfair, even with a few genuine criticisms sprinkled in.
Questions: I'll leave you with two thoughts to consider: First, what does it say about the incumbent's job performance that his campaign is so heavily reliant on discussing subjects other than his track record in office? Second, what does it say about the president's challenger that so many of the high-profile attacks against him have been grossly distorted, or entirely fabricated?