Lies, damn lies, and Big Bird

Two of the more memorable observations to come out of Mitt Romney during the first presidential debate had to do with fibs and Big Bird. The candidate said that as the father of sons, he knows that repeating a lie doesn't make it true. As to the latter? Look out, "Sesame Street," your days as a "victim" on the federal dole are numbered.

The two seemingly unrelated remarks are worth mentioning because they intersect in Mr. Romney's tax and budget plans which, even by the most generous of interpretations, don't add up. If President Barack Obama failed in the debate, it was in not making that point strongly enough.


Let's make it clear: What Mr. Romney has pledged so far in this campaign — that he can cut individual income tax rates without either favoring the wealthy or losing tax revenue — is a mathematically impossible feat. Don't take our word for it. Just call up any objective tax analysis you can find on the Internet. This really isn't a close call.

Better yet, take a look at what even a conservative, pro-business organization like the Tax Foundation has concluded. It projects that the Republican tax plan would produce a tax cut as much as six times greater (on a percentage basis) for the rich than for middle-class Americans, even if the tax changes spur considerable economic growth.


The proposal would seriously hamper efforts to cut the deficit. The nonpartisan Tax Policy Center figures it could actually end up increasing the deficit by nearly $5 trillion over the next 10 years. As economists have repeatedly pointed out, the nation will need both budget cuts and substantially more tax revenue to eventually whittle down the U.S. debt load. Giving tax breaks that skew to the wealthy does not achieve that end any more than eating cake helps a person lose weight.

What seemed to throw the incumbent off during the debate, however, were Mr. Romney's repeated and effusive pledges that the wealthy won't end up getting a tax break because he's going to limit their deductions. ("I don't have a $5 trillion tax cut," he said in Denver.) But how, exactly, is he going to penalize high-earners to offset the rate reduction? He has said in the past that's a matter to be hashed out with Congress.

Now, wait a minute. We've heard that before. The candidate is promising all the stuff people like — lower tax rates — but hedging on the stuff they don't (no more deductions for mortgage interest, charitable contributions, accelerated depreciation or the other major write-offs that would be required to offset such a large tax cut to make it revenue neutral).

That's the kind of approach that helped get the nation in trouble with the George W. Bush-era tax cuts and the failure to finance foreign wars. Washington is only too happy to dispense the goodies but loath to ask voters or special interest groups to make real sacrifices — except cutting Big Bird.

That's right. When it came time to talk budgets, the only specific item Mr. Romney offered to actually cut was federal funding for the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, which amounts to all of $450 million, or a mere 15 percent of CPB funds. The nation gets an awfully good return on that modest payment, including "Sesame Street" as well as performing arts, news and public affairs programs of integrity. Cutting Big Bird trims the deficit by roughly — nothing.

We'll say this about Mr. Romney's performance last week. He was forceful, confident, energized and well-prepared for the debate. Small wonder that most observers declared him the "winner." But what he was selling is pure fantasy, and he needs to be taken to task for it.

The nation is facing serious economic challenges, and it requires a serious debate over how best to spur growth but also reduce the deficit in the long term. What Mr. Romney has offered so far is little more than tax policy flimflam — well-packaged and convincingly presented, perhaps, but no more real than a giant, yellow talking bird.