Near the end of his forceful performance in Wednesday presidential debate, Mitt Romney borrowed a memorable one-liner from Daniel Patrick Moynihan. “As President,” he told Barack Obama, “you’re entitled to your airplane and your own house, but not your own facts.” But Moynihan’s old adage (“you’re entitled to your own opinion, but not your own facts”) is badly outdated. In TIME’s new cover story this week, Michael Scherer explains how the two presidential campaigns are operating in separate realities, tailoring their rhetoric and statistics to supporters inclined to trust their side’s claims and disbelieve the other’s. The casualty is vital context, if not truth itself.
This phenomenon played out Wednesday night, when both Romney and Obama chided each other for twisting the truth even as they played fast and loose with the facts themselves. Armed with statistics and abstruse studies, the two presidential candidates traded accusations for 90 minutes, often letting the falsehoods fly or misrepresenting each other’s positions. There are plenty of examples, but it’s worth zeroing in on two policy areas that dominated the debate: taxes and health care.
Obama called Romney’s tax proposal as a “$5 trillion tax cut,” a characterization that he has used on the campaign trail to highlight the tax break Romney would give the wealthy. This is somewhat misleading. Romney’s plan would cut marginal tax rates for all Americans by 20%, not just the wealthy. In addition, Obama cited a study, written by the nonpartisan Tax Policy Center, that suggested Romney’s plan would raise rates on middle-class families by an average of some $2,000 per year–a point Romney protested, noting that “other studies” have contested the claim.
Notwithstanding the challenge of squeezing reams of facts into brief debate answers, neither candidate is telling the whole truth here. The studies Romney cited were critical of the Tax Policy Center analysis, but part of their gripe was that Romney had provided insufficient details for his plan to be properly analyzed. Romney hasn’t filled in the fine print. The objection to his plan is that it can’t possibly balance the budget while cutting taxes and increasing the defense budget. Romney has said he’ll accomplish this by closing unspecified loopholes in the tax code, and the study argues the only way to do this is by cutting perks that disproportionately benefit the middle class, such as the mortgage-interest deduction. But this is informed speculation, which is not the same as a fact. For Obama to suggest otherwise is something of a reach.
Romney unfurled a bigger whopper on health care, repeating a charge he has used widely on the campaign trail: that the President has cut $716 billion from Medicare to pay for Obamacare. On the trail, Romney has used phrases like “gut” and “rob”; on stage in Denver, he was more measured. But he is still stretching the facts to appeal to supporters and independents who are suspicious of Obama’s landmark health-care reforms. Obamacare does not cut money from Medicare’s budget. Nor does it cut services or benefits in Medicare. Instead, it slightly reduces the growth in Medicare spending, savings which add up over time.
In addition, Obamacare augments Medicare in certain ways, such as by offering free preventive care and better prescription drug coverage. Obama’s reforms do reduce Medicare spending over time, but they do not fundamentally reshape the program — and certainly not to the degree that the “premium support” (or voucher) system Romney and his running mate, Paul Ryan, advocate. In fact, Ryan’s own budget blueprint, which was adopted with the overwhelming support of the Republican-controlled House, maintained those same $700 billion in cuts. (Romney has said that unlike Ryan, he would reinstate those funds into the program.)
These are nuanced issues, not ones easily unpacked for swing voters sitting on their couches. It’s a reasonable bet that the television audience will be as swayed in the candidates’ mien and delivery as the details of their respective policy agendas. But the point, as TIME’s cover story notes, is that neither candidate pays any penalty for his subtle deceptions. Which is why both breezily fudge the facts while accusing the other of doing the same.