First Presidential Debate Gave Fact-Checkers a Lot of Homework

Critics say moderator Jim Lehrer let President Obama and Mitt Romney walk all over him in the first presidential debate, but because Lehrer let the candidates go long on their answers, and because both are technocratic candidates, the debate had a surprising level of substance.

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Critics say moderator Jim Lehrer let President Obama and Mitt Romney walk all over him in the first presidential debate, but because Lehrer let the candidates go long on their answers, and because both are technocratic candidates, the debate had a surprising level of substance. If the debate had been snappier and zingier, pundits would be wailing about the terrible superficiality of American politics. Instead, Romney and Obama gave the fact-checkers a whole bunch of stuff to sort through. Here are the arguments and the facts of three big policies they debated:


What'd they say?

Obama and Romney spent several minutes debating whether Romney's tax plan features a $5 trillion tax cut. Obama said, "Romney’s proposal that he has been promoting for 18 months calls for a $5 trillion tax cut, on top of $2 trillion of additional spending for our military. And he is saying that he is going to pay for it by closing loopholes and deductions. The problem is that he’s been asked over 100 times how you would close those deductions and loopholes, and he hasn’t been able to identify them." Obama continued that "independent studies" said the only way Romney could implement his plan and not increase the deficit is by increasing taxes on the middle class -- the average family with kids paying $2,000 more. "It’s -- it’s math. It’s arithmetic."

Romney responded that he would not cut taxes in a way that increased the deficit. "There’s no economist that can say Mitt Romney’s tax plan adds $5 trillion if I say I will not add to the deficit with my tax plan." He continued, "I will not under any circumstances raise taxes on middle-income families… Now, you cite a study. There are six other studies that looked at the study you describe and say it’s completely wrong. I saw a study that came out today that said you’re going to raise taxes by $3,000 to $4,000 on middle-income families… I want to bring the rates down, at the same time lower deductions and exemptions and credits and so forth, so we keep getting the revenue we need."

What are they talking about?

This was one of the moments when the candidates seemed to forget they were talking to an audience that was larger than "people who read a lot of political blogs." The study Obama was referring to was by the Tax Policy Center. (Obama's reference to "math," too, seemed to be a nod to Jon Stewart's praise of Bill Clinton's math in his Democratic National Convention speech.) TPC's study, released August 1, found that Romney can't achieve all his tax goals with the tax plan he's offered. Romney wants to cut marginal tax rates, eliminate the alternative minimum tax, and pay for that by getting rid of some tax deductions, so that in the end, middle class taxes don't go up, and the deficit doesn't increase. But TPC found that killing the deductions won't save enough money to make up for the price of tax cuts. So TPC found that to avoid increasing the deficit, Romney has to increase taxes on the middle class.

But there have been others who say Romney's plan is possible -- Harvard's Martin Feldstein found that if Romney raises taxes on those making more than $100,000 a year, instead of $250,000 a year.

Who's right?

PolitiFact rates Obama's claim as half-true, but says a reason Obama can make his claim is that Romney hasn't offered enough details. Obama's $5 trillion number comes from adding up TPC's estimated yearly cost of Romney's plan -- $480 billion -- over 10 years. "But Obama is right in pointing out that Romney has yet to specify what tax breaks he would change," PolitiFact says.

What about the "six studies" backing Romney up? says there are five, but two were blog posts, and none were nonpartisan. One one of these studies was done by someone who wasn't advising Romney -- Harvey Rosen, who worked on George W. Bush's Council of Economic Advisers. But Rosen's analysis rests on the idea that cutting taxes will grow the economy an extra 3 percent. There isn't much evidence to back that up -- after Bush's tax cuts, real gross domestic product grew by an average of a little more than 2 percent.

Health care

What'd they say?

Obama said that since Obamacare was passed, sure, health care premiums have gone up, but "they’ve gone up slower than any time in the last 50 years. So we’re already beginning to see progress." He said under Romney's plan, "there’s no indication that that somehow is going to help somebody who’s got a pre-existing condition be able to finally buy insurance. In fact, it’s estimated that by repealing Obamacare, you’re looking at 50 million people losing health insurance…"

Romney countered that "preexisting conditions are covered under my plan. Number two, young people are able to stay on their family plan." He said Obamacare is too expensive, because the Congressional Budget Office has said Obamacare will cost $2,500 a year more. In 2008, Obama promised to lower the cost of insurance by $2,500 per family.

What were they talking about?

How insurance companies can get out of paying for some medical conditions now and under Romney's plan, and how much insurance costs per month.

Who's right?

Health care spending, not health insurance premiums, has grown at a slower rate, says. But credit goes to the bad economy, not Obama, for the slower growth in health care spending. As for premiums, Obamacare "was responsible for a 1 percent to 3 percent increase last year because of more generous coverage requirements."

As for pre-existing conditions, The New Republic's Jonathan Cohn says he was jumping out of his chair at this part of the debate. Romney said "number one, preexisting conditions are covered under my plan." But that's only for people with continuous coverage -- that means people who've never gone without insurance. But it's the people who've gone without insurance who are at the greatest risk for losing coverage.

Medicare and Medicaid

What'd they say? 

Romney accused Obama of cutting $716 billion from Medicare, and promise to restore it. Romney preempted an expected Obama attack line, saying that while Obama says the cuts are just to eliminate fraud and abuse, they're actually cutting how much doctors and hospitals get reimbursed, which means fewer will accept Medicare patients.

Obama countered that Romney would make even bigger cuts to the program in the long run by offering vouchers, eventually costing old people $6,000 a year more, and further down the line, crippling Medicare until it faces "collapse."

What are they talking about?

The $716 billion Obama cuts is in the plan offered by Paul Ryan, too. explains that the cuts are not to benefits, and in some cases give incentives for better care -- if hospitals have too many readmissions, they lose money. "Hospitals agreed to these cuts because they knew, at the same time, they would likely see an influx of paying patients with the Affordable Care Act’s insurance expansion," The Washington Post's Sarah Kliff explained in August.

Romney wants to offer old people on Medicare the option of getting a subsidy to buy private insurance. Obama argues that the size of the voucher won't grow as fast as health care costs, so seniors will be able to get less and less care.

Who's right?

PolitiFact says the $6,000 figure Obama cited is based on an older plan offered by Paul Ryan. "The current plan, while it caps overall growth in Medicare spending, is slightly more generous in how fast it allows subsidies to grow as health care costs increase," the site says. It's possible the increased close is as little as $800 a year, but the new plan hasn't been fully analyzed. says that while cuts to the growth of Medicare is necessary to extend the life of the program, it's true that Medicare’s chief actuary, Richard Foster, testified last year that 15 percent of providers who take Medicare patients would become unprofitable, a figure Romney alluded to.

But Romney's plan has problems, too. His promise to restore the Medicare cuts, The New Republic's Cohn says, poses some of the same problems as his tax plan. "Either Romney can’t restore the Medicare dollars as he says or he’s not living up to his promises on deficit reduction," Cohn writes. In August, The New York Times' Jackie Calmes reported that Romney's promised restoration of the cuts would have the curious result of actually raising out-of-pocket costs by $342 a year over the next decade. That's because if Medicare pays more to doctors, seniors' co-pays are higher, too.

This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.