A Debate Survival Guide: 6 Things to Remember When the Candidates Spin

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There are plenty of true things that Mitt Romney and Barack Obama can say about each other tonight. Romney can say that Obama has expressed no clear plan for getting any major bill passed in his second term. Obama can say that Romney's plan to balance the budget falls mostly on cutting health care spending and income-support for the sick, the elderly, and the poor. Both are pretty true statements.

But we're also going to see some kinda-sorta-true or only-barely-true statements as well. (I won't hazard to guess the outright lies.) Rather than wait for the media fact-check tomorrow morning, arm yourself with accessible rejoinders to the following likely zingers from the candidates.

If Mitt Romney Says ...

"This has been the worst recovery since the Great Depression"

Remember: Well, first, it also followed to the worst recession since the Great Depression. Second, yes, this recovery has been awful. No question about it. And since we can't run a control experiment on the last 4 years, we can't know for sure if it would have been stronger if we followed Paul Krugman's advice (more aggressive spending), Scott Sumner's advice (a more aggressive Federal Reserve), or the GOP's advice (tax cuts and spending cuts, or outright austerity). But here's something we do know for sure: Obama's recovery wasn't so much worse than the George W. Bush's recovery after a shallower recession in the early 2000s. In fact, private sector jobs have recovered faster under Obama than under Bush.
 
Screen Shot 2012-08-03 at 7.14.25 AM.pngThis is partly a function of timing (neither Obama nor Bush were president when the seeds of their respective recessions were planted). But it's also an important reminder that our modern trend of job-less recoveries on top of a historic recession was almost inevitably going to lead to a rough recovery.

"Four more years? We can't afford four more years of trillion-dollar deficits that this president has added to the debt"

Remember: The claim is nearly true but incomplete. It's true that the president's stimulus added significantly to the deficit in 2009 and 2010. But the stimulus is all but spent now, and most of the deficit today is the result of historically low taxes passed under Bush and extended under Obama (along with Democrats and Republicans in Congress). The graph below, from the New York Times, tells the story well. The vast majority of the debt isn't something Obama did alone with Democrats -- it's the inevitable result of the recession and a tax plan that both parties supported.

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"Obama, the 44th president, fittingly and sadly has presided over 44 consecutive months of 8 percent unemployment"

Remember: The official unemployment rate is unlikely to fall 0.2 percentage points in the next jobs report, which means this will be the 44th consecutive month of 8% unemployment. Obama bears responsibility for this. It is his record, after all. But something to keep in mind: In the last year and a half, the public sector lost an average of 17,000 jobs a month. Without those losses -- made necessary by Republican measures to block state aid and state-by-state cuts to government workers -- we might have saved as hundreds of thousands of jobs, which would have lowered unemployment significantly. 

If President Obama Says ...

"Look. Mr. Romney says he cares about the deficit, but in fact, his tax plan would cost the government $5 trillion by his own admission"

Remember: The Obama campaign has said repeatedly that Romney's tax plan would cost $5 trillion. But Romney has repeatedly said that his plan would be revenue neutral. In other words, it would "cost" nothing. Where's the misunderstanding? Essentially, Romney has promised to cut tax rates dramatically and pay for that lost revenue by spending less money through the tax code. For example, this week he suggested capping deductions at $17,000. But confusion over Romney's plan will probably encourage Obama to make another claim ...

"Mitt Romney's tax plan would, according to non-partisan analysis, result in a $2,000 tax increase on families that wouldn't have to pay a cent more under my plan"

Remember: It is true that the Tax Policy Center determined that Mitt Romney's plan would require a tax hike on families earning considerably less than $250,000 -- who would not pay higher taxes under Obama's plan. But there are two important caveats here. First, Romney's tax advisers have said, in follow-up interviews, that keeping effective tax rates steady for the middle class is paramount to them, and that they would amend their policy if it appeared to raise taxes at the middle. Second, and more broadly, taxes will have to go up on families making less than $250,000, eventually. There's just no way we can conceivably pay for our popular entitlement programs, as they are, with 90% of the country paying a lower effective rate than they did in the 1990s. Then again, maybe our entitlement programs won't be "as they are" for very long....

"Mitt Romney and Paul Ryan will end Medicare as we know it for our seniors"


Remember: Romney/Ryan's long-term plan for Medicare would make it less like an insurance program and more like a check-writing program that helps seniors buy a private insurance plan. Democrats think this idea should scare seniors. And perhaps it should. But it shouldn't scare today's seniors right now, because the plan wouldn't come online until the 2023. That would be three full years after President Mitt Romney's last month in office after reelection. It's a very, very long ways away. The most immediate changes Romney and Ryan are proposing aren't in Medicare, or Social Security. They're in Medicaid and non-defense discretionary spending. That's where the president would do well to focus his attention.
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Derek Thompson is a senior editor at The Atlantic, where he writes about economics, labor markets, and the entertainment business.

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