David Axelrod: “Governor Romney, the centerpiece and really the only piece of his plan that is real is this $5 trillion tax cut, $2 trillion in extra spending for the Pentagon, no plan to pay for, it and deregulate Wall Street.“
The “$5 trillion tax cut” language relies on creative math and a contested study from the center-left Tax Policy Center. The plan combines tax rate reductions with the elimination of selected tax breaks for higher income earners, though the Romney campaign has not suggested any specific combination of tax breaks Romney would end.
Axelrod made his statement after television host Candy Crowley showed a clip of President Obama criticizing Romney’s jobs plan. Crowley asked if the attacks on Romney were intended as the Obama campaign’s closing argument. Axelrod’s full response:
First of all, Candy, I’m happy to go poll to poll for you, but let’s set aside the polls for a second. The governor’s closing — the president’s closing message is exactly what I said before, which is we’ve made some progress. We have to build on that process, and we have to move forward in a way that builds an economy that works for the middle class. And what we can’t do is go back to the failed policies of the past.
Governor Romney, the centerpiece and really the only piece of his plan that is real is this $5 trillion tax cut, $2 trillion in extra spending for the Pentagon, no plan to pay for, it and deregulate Wall Street.
Axelrod mentions the “$5 trillion tax cut.” Does Romney plan a $5 trillion tax cut? Other fact checkers have examined the claim.
The Washington Post Fact Checker provides no rating of the claim, simply saying “Obama, in referring to Romney’s plan as a $5 trillion tax cut, is basing that on the estimate of reducing tax rates by 20 percent while also extending the Bush tax cuts, two planks of the plan.”
FactCheck.org says “Obama accused Romney of proposing a $5 trillion tax cut. Not true. Romney proposes to offset his rate cuts and promises he won’t add to the deficit.”
PolitiFact says “President Obama said Mitt Romney seeks a $5 trillion tax cut. … We rate the statement Half True.”
Romney’s tax plan is not quite the same thing as his jobs plan, though some overlap exists (bold emphasis added):
Part five of Mitt’s plan is to champion small business. Small businesses are the engine of job creation in this country, but they will struggle to succeed if taxes and regulations are too burdensome or if a government in Washington does its best to stifle them. Mitt will pursue comprehensive tax reform that lowers tax rates for all Americans, and he will cut back on the red tape that drives up costs and discourages hiring.
In most circumstances a lowered tax rate means a tax cut. However, Romney’s plan pledges to balance the lower tax rates by eliminating selected deductions for higher income earners. The Tax Policy Center, associated with the center-left Brookings Institution, looked at Romney’s proposal and concluded that keeping the plan revenue neutral would not work without eliminating at least some deductions on middle-income earners.
The conservative Heritage Foundation responded:
The Tax Policy Center is the industry standard for producing high-quality tax data that are integral to tax policy debates. However, in this TPC report, the authors’ choices and assumptions lead them to a carefully chosen result that is misleading and biased. This hinders the debate on tax reform because lawmakers and the public need accurate information to make good decisions.
The experts disagree. What’s a fact checker to do? Just prefer one expert over another or a majority over a minority, as PolitiFact sometimes does?
Analyzing the Rhetoric
At times it’s okay for a fact checker to prefer one expert or a group of experts over another. But in the interest of transparency and informing the reader, the fact checker is obligated to explain what reasons were used to favor one view over another.
We don’t know which expert is correct about the feasibility of Romney’s tax plan. But we do know that Romney carries no obligation to raise taxes on the middle income groups if eliminating deductions fails to achieve revenue neutrality. In that respect both the Tax Policy Center evaluation and the related Obama campaign claims mislead.
The “tax cut” claim is not literally true and only qualifies as true with a charitable interpretation that takes “tax cut” to sarcastically refer to the possible difficulty of achieving revenue neutrality by eliminating tax deductions for high income earners.
Rhetorically, calling the Romney plan a $5 trillion “tax cut” feeds into the Obama campaign’s theme that Republican policies deliberately benefit the rich at the expense of the middle and lower classes. Since Romney’s description of the plan differs radically on that point, the Obama campaign version counts as a distortion. The Tax Policy Center study does not mitigate that judgment because the study makes unwarranted assumptions about the details of the plan.
The Axelrod/Obama campaign argument trades on ambiguity, using the truth of a tax rate cut to sell the reality of a tax cut proper while ignoring Romney’s plan to cut deductions on higher income earners to achieve revenue neutrality.
Axelrod’s “no plan to pay for it” line follows the same pattern. The Romney plan does include a plan for achieving revenue neutrality by eliminating tax deductions. But Axelrod’s line counts as true if charitably taken to mean that Romney’s plan is not specific about which deductions it will end.
Axelrod, David. “Interview With David Axelrod.” Interview by Candy Crowley. State of the Union With Candy Crowley. CNN. 28 Oct. 2012. Television. Transcript.
“Mitt’s Plan to Create 12 Million New Jobs.” Mitt Romney for President. Romney Victory, Inc., n.d. Web. 30 Oct. 2012.
Kessler, Glenn. “Fact Check: The $5 Trillion Cut.” Web log post. Election 2012 Blog. The Washington Post, 3 Oct. 2012. Web. 30 Oct. 2012.
Jackson, Brooks. “Dubious Denver Debate Declarations.” FactCheck.org. The Annenberg Public Policy Center, 3 Oct. 2012. Web. 30 Oct. 2012.
Greenberg, Jon. “Obama Says Romney’s Plan Is a $5 Trillion Tax Cut.” PolitiFact. The Tampa Bay Times, 4 Oct. 2012. Web. 30 Oct. 2012.
“Romney Plan.” Taxpolicycenter.org. Tax Policy Center, n.d. Web. 31 Oct. 2012.
Dubay, Curtis S. “Tax Policy Center’s Skewed Analysis of Governor Romney’s Tax Plan.” Heritage.org. The Heritage Foundation, 25 Sept. 2012. Web. 31 Oct. 2012.