Presidential Debates 2012: Romney May Have Won on Word Count, But Left a Web of Lies Behind


If anything could demonstrate that President Barack Obama is not "thin-skinned," it has to be the storm of disappointment and crowing he has weathered since he faced off against former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney in the first of three debates before Election Day. 

Fortunately, he isn't as limited as his predecessors who were deemed to have "lost" their first debates to the 90 minutes of live broadcast. Videos are everywhere, and transcripts of the entire debate published from PolicyMic to Politico, and anyone can reread for herself to compare what the candidates said as well as how they said it.

I prefer it that way and planned to digest the event after the fact. That approach was reinforced when the afterword was so focused on Romney's apparent win. But I did end up hearing the first 40 minutes, trapped in my car and unable to justify popping in a CD. That turned out to be good too, because as I read the transcript, I could again hear Romney (mostly) in my memory's ear. The man talks fast! I wondered why, and after reviewing just the part of the transcript I had already heard, I conclude it's specifically to overwhelm his opponent, the moderator, and probably the listening voters with the sheer number of his words so we won't notice his attention-deficit disorder. In slo-mo, he's confused at best and maybe intentionally misleading. Here are a few examples, with links to the specific spots in the Politico transcript:

The deepest mud puddle is small business:

Romney would "champion small business. It's small business that creates the jobs in America. And over the last four years, small-business people have decided that America may not be the place to open a new business, because new business startups are down to a 30-year low."

Haven't seen fact checking on that stat, but I wonder where the small-business people are going to open their shops? And why wouldn't he champion them? After all,

"54 percent of America's workers work in businesses that are taxed not at the corporate tax rate, but at the individual tax rate. And if we lower that rate, they will be able to hire more people."

The individual tax rate is paid only by the smallest businesses, starting with the sole proprietorships and partnerships that are defined by the individuals who make them up. We (I'm one) file Schedules C with our 1040s, and pay both a worker's and an employer's portion of Social Security. We hire at most a couple of office staff each, often just temporary and part-time help. Romney clearly understood that much:

"I've talked to a guy who has a very small business. He's in the electronics business in — in St. Louis. He has four employees. He said he and his son calculated how much they pay in taxes, federal income tax, federal payroll tax, state income tax, state sales tax, state property tax, and gasoline tax. It added up to well over 50 percent of what they earned."

Well, it's pretty hard to follow all of this without knowing details like whether the son is one of the four employees and what "what they earned" means — the company's gross? net? the father's and son's combined salaries? I do know, from another tiny business in which I participate, that unless this business is stupid, they don't pay state sales tax; they collect it from their retail customers and turn it in. It's really very direct.

Oh, and didn't he say 54% of Americans work in businesses of this size, five or six of us at a time? He did clarify that, just before he mentioned the guy in St. Louis:

"97 percent of the businesses are not — not taxed at the 35 percent tax rate, they're taxed at a lower rate. But those businesses that are in the last 3 percent of businesses happen to employ half — half of all the people who work in small business. Those are the businesses that employ one-quarter of all the workers in America." [emphasis added]

So first 54% of Americans work (present tense) in businesses small enough that their proprietors are taxed as individuals. Only not in the last four years; those businesses have gone someplace else. No, now three percent of "the" businesses employ half of the workers in small business, but they pay tax as corporations, and these corporations employ a quarter of all U.S. workers. That, according to the arithmetic I learned, leaves the other half of small-business workers, 1/4 of all American workers, working in businesses taxed at individual rates. And the other half of American workers are working for big businesses, unquestionably taxed at (and with access to deductions as) corporations.

Just a little later, after President Obama noted that Donald Trump operates as a small business, Romney came back to those workers in businesses taxed at individual rates, and he did remember this time that they're only 1/4 of American workers, but he still couldn't get over the notion that these were the real job creators. I suppose the Donald could create a few jobs if he had a mind to, but like Romney, he's more familiar with the phrase "You're fired!" And seriously, as neither candidate acknowledged that I heard, most of Trump's, Romney's, and Obama's personal income doesn't come on a pay stub with all those taxes attached; it comes in the form of dividends and capital gains, taxed at the federal level even below the corporate rate.

For someone with such a background in business, and such a personal portfolio, Romney doesn't seem to grasp economic facts that even I get, such as:

The meaning of "federal income tax": "Middle-income Americans have seen their income come down by $4,300. This is a — this is a tax in and of itself. I'll call it the economy tax." Who does Romney think might be collecting this tax? Has he noticed that revenues are down at essentially all levels and orders of government?

That actually quite clever turn of phrase in which Obama referred to "a deduction for taking a plant overseas": Romney tried to turn it back to mock the president, saying, "I maybe need to get a new accountant." Actually, I'm sure his present accountant could tell Romney, if he really wanted to know, about his Cayman and Swiss accounts. All it takes is stashing the cash outside the boundaries. Maybe that's where the small-business owners have gone to open up. 

The difference between 'the public [federal] debt' and "debt held by the public": I guess Romney could be forgiven some for having so little personal experience with debt, but that accountant might be able to tell him about U.S. Treasury notes, various bonds from "Munies" up, and shoot, even Savings Bonds. Having heard all my life about war bonds, I naively assumed that one of the solutions to other nations, such as China, being so deeply invested in our government's debt, would be indeed for more of the public to hold it.

It didn't really surprise me that Romney doesn't quite know what he thinks about the Affordable Care Act. First he complained, "health care costs have gone up by $2,500 a family." (I'll give him a by on forgetting that it's health insurance, not care, that's so expensive, unless you don't have insurance.) Then, "Obamacare" was his first example (though it got overshadowed by the other) of a program not worth borrowing money from China to pay for. "So I'll get rid of that." I don't know whether Romney may have circled back in the last 50 minutes of the debate, but I have heard him say elsewhere that he only needs to "tweak" the ACA and/or that he will provide universal health insurance. So some parts are worth borrowing from China for?

Every time I try to look at more of the transcript, I get more exhausted by that voice clipping away in my ear, eschewing simple sentences so entirely that even he can't seem to find the way from one end to the other. You may say I'm a nitpicker, but I need evidence that anybody who wants to be my president can express what she wants and keep her numbers straight. Look at how much trouble Obama's had with Congress when he is clear and precise in presenting his ideas.

I think the Big Bird issue has been done to death, but it should have been the gaffe of the night. No, maybe that was when Romney gave the top 1% back to the president to go with the 47%: "High-income people are doing just fine in this economy. They'll do fine whether you're president or I am." I'll also keep energy policy for another day, especially since Romney did catch himself and remember that the Keystone Pipeline carries (and will carry) Canadian shale oil to U.S. Gulf Coast refineries, where it will be made into, among other things, gasoline for export.

President Obama's performance in this debate was no different from his behavior in the 2008 primary debates. I remember that because his politeness, his quiet refusal to bicker or pounce — not to mention to throw out numbers he didn't have fully documented then and there (the candidates were not permitted to come with notes)  — made me proud, made me hopeful that we might one day again be a united country that can disagree, compromise, reach consensus, and grow together. Unfortunately, there's the Congress, but I think there are tortoises there too.