Romney’s 12 Million Jobs: How to Lie While Telling the Truth

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Brooks Kraft / Corbis for TIME

Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney and his vice-presidential candidate Paul Ryan campaign in Lancaster, Ohio, on Oct. 12, 2012

Mitt Romney’s pledge to create 12 million jobs is a cardboard cutout of a campaign promise. It looks great, even bold, from one angle, but there’s really not much behind it. As this publication and others have explained, economic forecasters of all stripes already expect the economy to add roughly that number of jobs from 2013 to 2017.

In case you need a refresher: Assuming a very rough estimate of 1 million new jobs per 1% increase in economic growth, the Fed’s September forecast had the economy adding 5.5 million to 6.8 million jobs in 2013 and 2014, with the pace quickening in the following years. Moody’s Analytics’ August forecast was slightly sunnier but in the same range. So Romney’s pledge to create 12 million jobs in four years is on the conservative end of the spectrum. More important, that predictive spectrum is based on current policy. In other words, Romney is pledging to preserve the economic status quo.

There’s nothing so terrible about Romney’s making this promise. It’s slightly misleading, but it’s a candidate’s job to sell his campaign, and 12 million jobs sounds great. Since it’s expected to happen under current policy, Obama could have beaten Romney to the punch by broadcasting the fact — also technically true — that forecasters are saying all these jobs will be created under the President’s current plan. But Obama’s never said that, so “12 million jobs” remains an exclusively Republican mantra. Obama’s loss.

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That doesn’t give Romney license to abuse the figure, though, which is exactly what he did in a recent ad. Whereas he once said that “we put [my policies] in place and we’ll add 12 million jobs in four years” — a neat trick of rhetorical proximity without any definitive claim of causation — Romney drops the pretense in a new TV spot. “Let me tell you how I’ll create 12 million jobs when President Obama couldn’t,” Romney says.

You can plausibly interpret this statement in two different ways. One is that Obama can’t create 12 million jobs in the next four years: impossible to disprove, but not entirely fair, considering that economists expect it to happen. The other interpretation is that Romney would have created 12 million jobs had he been elected in 2008, an utterly fantastical claim I doubt the Romney campaign intended. Any other comparison — matching Obama’s first term in the depths of a recession to a Romney first term at the outset of a recovery — is, as Romney might say, apples to oranges.

The rest of the ad is worse. Glenn Kessler does the yeoman’s work of tracking down the sources of each bullet point in Romney’s presentation and exposes the spurious math: double counting, elastic timelines that stretch out as far as a decade, and so on.  But one of the notable things about Romney’s “12 million jobs” pledge and its accompanying claims is that none of them are lies. As Michael Scherer wrote in his recent cover story, disincentives for campaign prevarications are sorely lacking, but a historic fact-checking effort is under way to mitigate the damage. And for all the frustration over the media’s inability to declare a lie leader and their tendency to declare statements “half true,” these are reasonable responses to candidates who have learned to campaign on deeply misleading claims without stepping into outright falsehood.