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Facts Take a Beating in First Presidential Debate

Thursday, 4 Oct 2012 | 10:41 AM ET

President Barack Obama and Republican challenger Mitt Romney sparred over taxes, the budget and health-care in their first debate Wednesday night. But our Investigations Inc. fact checking team found that in many cases the facts got caught in the middle.

Republican presidential candidate, former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney (L) speaks during the Presidential Debate as Democratic presidential candidate, U.S. President Barack Obama (R) looks on at the University of Denver.
Republican presidential candidate, former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney (L) speaks during the Presidential Debate as Democratic presidential candidate, U.S. President Barack Obama (R) looks on at the University of Denver.

Mitt Romney’s proposal to cut marginal tax rates across the board by 20 percent was a major point of contention, with the president repeatedly referring to it as a “$5 trillion tax cut” and Gov. Romney saying it was nothing of the sort. (Read More: Kudlow—A Huge Victory For a Principled Romney)

“I’m not looking for a $5 trillion tax cut,” Romney said. “What I’ve said is I won’t put in place a tax cut that adds to the deficit.”

Romney said a tax cut that is revenue-neutral by definition does not cost money. But Obama said the Romney plan is not workable.

“The fact is that if you are lowering the rates the way you described, Governor, then it is not possible to come up with enough deductions and loopholes that only affect high-income individuals to avoid either raising the deficit or burdening the middle class. It's math. It's arithmetic,” Obama said.

But in fact, both candidates’ math may be off.

The President's figure of $5 trillion to pay for Romney's tax cut proposal comes from the non-partisan Tax Policy Center, which found the Romney plan would lower federal tax liability by $480 billion in 2015. http://www.taxpolicycenter.org/taxtopics/romney-plan.cfm. That comes out to $4.8 trillion over ten years. (Read More: Analysis—Candidates' Deficit Plans Don't Add Up)

The same analysis said that in order for Romney to keep his pledge of making his tax cuts revenue neutral by closing loopholes and limiting deductions, he would have to effectively raise taxes on a middle income family with children by $2,000 a year. Obama again seized in that analysis to claim in the debate that Romney was proposing a middle class tax increase. But Romney has proposed no such thing, and even the TPC said in a follow-up report that it is not saying that Romney wants to raise taxes on the middle-class. Rather, the report says Romney cannot keep his promise to make his plan revenue neutral and still hold the line on middle class taxes.

CNBC Investigations Inc.
CNBC Investigations Inc.

But Romney was ready for the charge.

“Now, you cite a study,” Romney said. “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.” (Read More: Obama, Romney Clash on Economy in First Debate)

But Romney’s studies are not exactly objective.

The one that came out this week is from the conservative American Enterprise Institute, which challenged the Tax Policy Center’s assumptions about the Romney plan, and said critics are not considering the economic growth the tax cuts would generate. Figure that in, the study says, and Romney meets the revenue-neutral goal.

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But even Romney has acknowledged that his tax cuts would require broadening the tax base to avoid worsening the deficit, and once again he managed to avoid specifics.

Romney also avoided specifics on how he would reduce the deficit (saying at one point that most of his cuts would come "through attrition"), while falsely claiming Obama had "doubled" the deficit.

"You said you would cut the deficit in half," Romney said. "You doubled it."

In fact, as the president noted, the budget deficit stood at roughly $1.2 trillion when he took office in 2009, and the current budget deficit is approximately the same, though it is about 20 percent smaller when measured as a share of the total economy.

Nonetheless, Romney was correct in his charge that Obama has not kept his promise to cut the deficit in half by the end of his first term

At the same time, Romney took some spending cuts off the table.

He again promised to restore $716 billion in cuts to Medicare providers under Obama’s Affordable Care Act, and for the first time promised he would not cut education spending.

Both positions appear to run counter to those of Romney’s running mate, Rep. Paul Ryan, who included identical Medicare cuts as well as cuts in education spending in the budget passed by the House of Representatives. (Read More: Ryan's Way: How He Would Change Medicare.)

The pledge not to cut education is also at odds with Romney’s comments at a private fundraiser in April, as reported by NBC News.

"The Department of Education: I will either consolidate with another agency, or perhaps make it a heck of a lot smaller. I'm not going to get rid of it entirely," Romney was quoted as saying in April, adding that he would keep the agency primarily to push back against teachers’ unions.

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But at the debate, Romney pointed to his record as governor of Massachusetts as proof of his commitment to education.

“I don't want to cut our commitment to education. I wanted to make it more effective and efficient,” Romney said. “And by the way, I've had that experience. I don't just talk about it. I've been there. Massachusetts schools are ranked number one in the nation.”

Massachusetts schools were indeed ranked first in the nation when Romney left office in 2007, as we found in our inaugural rankings of America’s Top States for Business later that year. The state led the nation in elementary school math and reading scores as well as high school test scores.

Romney’s crowning achievement as Massachusetts governor was his health care plan, which he touted during the debate even as he repeated his promise to repeal Obamacare, which was largely modeled after it. (Read More: Top States Study Gives Romney Mixed Review as Mass. Governor.)

But Romney said there are key differences between his plan and the president’s plan, chief among them the Independent Payment Advisory Board mandated by the Affordable Care Act to help bring down costs.

“It puts in place an unelected board that's going to tell people ultimately what kind of treatments they can have. I don't like that idea,” Romney said.

But no one else seems to like the idea either, because Section 3403 of the lawspecifically bars the board from making decisions about patient care, and limits the board’s scope to the Medicare program.

“The proposal shall not include any recommendation to ration health care, raise revenues or Medicare beneficiary premiums … or increase Medicare beneficiary cost-sharing (including deductibles, coinsurance, and co-payments), or otherwise restrict benefits or modify eligibility criteria,” the law says.

Finally, Romney criticized Obama’s spending on what the governor called “green jobs.”

“You put $90 billion into green jobs,” Romney said. “Look, I'm all in favor of green energy. $90 billion, that would have hired 2 million teachers.”

Obama’s 2009 stimulus plan does devote some $92 billion to programs that can broadly be described as “green,” such as renewable energy and high speed rail. The largest portion of the money — $29 million — includes funding for energy efficient buildings.

As we reported in August, one of the members of Congress who sought some of that money for projects in his district was GOP vice presidential nominee Paul Ryan. (Read More: Ryan's Stimulus Requests: Did They Work?)

—By CNBC's Scott Cohn
@ScottCohnCNBC

Correction: An earlier version of this story said the assertion that Romney's tax cuts would cost $5 trillion came from the left-leaning Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, but the CBPP says it relied on figures reported by the Tax Policy Center.

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