Criticizing policies they disagree with is fair game, and not inherently detrimental to democratic discourse. But dishonest smears that distort Obama’s record are a different matter. And that’s what conservative activists, funded by large donations from a handful of rich individuals and corporations, are producing. The Republican 2012 campaign against Obama has three central complaints and three main reasons: that he has failed to boost the economy, reduce gas prices or rein in the budget deficit because (A) he does not allow enough domestic energy production, (B) he spends too much money and puts too much power in the hands of government and (C) healthcare reform is a prime example of point B.
This is all baloney. Obama inherited deficits and a recession from President Bush, and the recession automatically worsened deficits by causing government revenues to plunge while the number of people who qualify for government assistance increases. The Affordable Care Act actually reduces the deficit and domestic energy production has actually increased under Obama.
But Republicans can’t let those facts get in the way of their efforts to win back the White House. Consequently, their allies who receive unlimited donations are trying to convince the public using misleading analysis.
Karl Rove’s Crossroads GPS, which is expected to raise $200 million to run negative ads against President Obama, has launched its first ad campaign of the election. Running in six swing states with a total $1.7 million ad buy, the television commercial takes aim at President Obama’s record on energy. Factcheck.org labeled the ad “bogus.” They write:
The Republican-leaning group makes some false and exaggerated claims.
It says the president “limited development of American oil shale.” Actually, production of petroleum from shale formations is booming. What the administration slowed down were plans for experimental development of ways to produce oil by heating kerogen-rich rocks, something that is years away from becoming commercially feasible.
The ad claims Obama lobbied to “kill” the Keystone XL pipeline. Not true. So far he has delayed a decision on some of it—while endorsing construction of a portion that will carry more low-cost oil to Gulf Coast refineries.
The ad correctly notes that there was a 17 percent decline in oil production in the Gulf of Mexico last year. But not all of that is because of the administration’s temporary drilling moratorium there.
As the New York Times reports, this is just the beginning of a major onslaught to come from Crossroads GPS.
Meanwhile, Charles Blahous, a senior research fellow at George Mason University’s Mercatus Center, a conservative think tank that is heavily funded by Charles Koch and Koch family foundations, released a report on the budgetary impact of the Affordable Care Act. Blahous, who is the Republican Medicare Trustee, found the law will actually increase the deficit. The Washington Post credulously put his findings on its front page.
But the “study” wasn’t merely ideological; it was downright false. As Jonathan Chait explains in New York:
It’s not even remotely legit.
The Affordable Care Act spends a bunch of money to cover people who are too poor or sick to afford their own healthcare. To pay for that, it raises some taxes and cuts a bunch of spending from Medicare. The new revenue and the spending cuts outweigh the cost of the new spending, which is why the Congressional Budget Office projected it to reduce the deficit. Projections always have a margin for error attached, but the CBO’s two year update actually bumped up the savings projections a bit.
You may wonder what methods Blahous used to obtain a more accurate measure of the bill’s cost. The answer is that he relies on a simple conceptual trick. Medicare Part A has a trust fund. By law, the trust fund can’t spend more than it takes in. So Blahous assumes that, when the trust fund reaches its expiration, it would automatically cut benefits.
The assumption is important because it forms the baseline against which he measures Obama’s health-care law. He’s assuming that Medicare’s deficits will automatically go away. Therefore, the roughly $500 billion in Medicare savings that Obama used to help cover the uninsured is money that Blahous assumes the government wouldn’t have spent anyway. Without the health-care law, in other words, we would have had Medicare cuts but no new spending on the uninsured. Now we have the Medicare cuts and new spending on the uninsured. Therefore, the new spending in the law counts toward increasing the deficit, but the spending cuts don’t count toward reducing it.
That is a completely bizarre assumption. It’s not an assumption that any scoring agency ever applies in other situations. We assume that, in the absence of action, Congress will keep paying Medicare benefits. That’s why we have all these projections of future deficits. If Blahous’s assumptions are right, then we don’t really have an entitlement problem at all. Medicare can’t exceed its trust fund, so problem solved! You know how Paul Ryan has been stalking the halls of Congress with disaster-movie music in the backdrop, warning that we’re about to become Greece? He should relax! (Also, Blahous’s methodology would show that Ryan’s budget looks way worse, too.)
That’s why the Democratic Medicare trustee calls Blahous’s findings “misleading.”
Nontheless the Post story was credulously regurgitated by other outlets such as Reuters, which ran the headline “Obama healthcare could worsen U.S. debt: Republican study.” The story then opens with three paragraphs summarizing Blahous’s conclusion, with no explanation, much less a critical examination, of how exactly he reaches it. Reuters waits until the eighth paragraph to note that the nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office found that the law would reduce the deficit. Rather than simply stating that it says, “White House health adviser Jeanne Lambrew…said government estimates from the Office of Management and Budget and from the non-partisan Congressional Budget Office show the 2010 law would lower federal deficits over a 10 year period.” By attributing this fact to Lambrew it creates the false impression that this is somehow her assertion. It is an objective fact, and Reuters should present it as such. Instead, the article fits the standard mainstream media mold of presenting the question as one of competing partisan claims. For conservatives hoping to sow confusion in voters’ minds and mislead them into believing that healthcare reform will increase the deficit, it was a resounding success.
There will be a lot more dishonest propaganda of this sort in the months to come. Thanks to the Supreme Court’s pro-corporate Citizens United ruling, there will be plenty of money to fund it. Romney’s Super PAC, Restore Our Future, has raised over $41 million. Now big individual donors who supported other candidates are starting to line up behind Romney’s groups. For example Bob Perry, a homebuilder in Texas, had given heavily to Rick Perry. In March he gave $3.6 million to Restore Our Future. And so far it looks like mainstream media outlets might regurgitate their lies uncritically.