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Close Read: NPR Reporters Examine Denver Debate


This is MORNING EDITION, from NPR News. I'm Renee Montagne.


And I'm Steve Inskeep. Good morning.

The presidential candidates said so much last night, so quickly, on so many issues - at the debate, in Denver - that what we'll try to do next, is slow it down. We're taking a close read of statements by President Obama and Mitt Romney, on stage. We have correspondents here in Washington, and at the debate center in Denver. And let's start by listening, again, to a disagreement the candidates had early on.


PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: Gov. Romney's central economic plan calls for a $5 trillion tax cut...

MITT ROMNEY: ...go through piece by piece. First of all, I don't have a $5 trillion tax cut....

OBAMA: ...all the way...

ROMNEY: I don't have a...

OBAMA: You don't come close to paying for $5 trillion in tax cuts in...

ROMNEY: Let me repeat - let me repeat what I said...

OBAMA: All right.

ROMNEY: ...I'm not in favor of a $5 trillion tax cut.

INSKEEP: OK. NPR's John Ydstie was listening with us here, in Washington. And John, to summarize: Yes, you do. No, I don't. Yes, you do. No, I don't.



INSKEEP: So who's right?

YDSTIE: Well, according to Mr. Romney, his tax cut won't cost anything, and here's why: Essentially, his plan is to lower tax rates 20 percent, and eliminate some other taxes for people who make less than $200,000 a year. Now, according to a study by the nonpartisan Tax Policy Center, doing that would cost $465 billion a year. That would be about $5 trillion over the next 10 years, and that's how the president got that $5 trillion number.

But Romney says, wait a minute. It's not going to cost $5 trillion. I'm going to pay for those tax rate cuts by closing loopholes and ending deductions, mostly for the rich. But he's refused to say just which deductions he'll eliminate.

INSKEEP: So, wait a minute. So he really does have a $5 trillion tax plan - at least, how some experts count the numbers. But he's saying, I'm going to finance that with loophole closings that I have not specified.

YDSTIE: Right. And that's part of his plan, too. But the Tax Policy Center says there aren't enough savings in all the deductions available, to offset $5 trillion. The center concludes that Romney would have to raise taxes by $2,000 on average, middle-class families in order to fully pay for the plan - that is, make sure that it doesn't increase the deficit.

INSKEEP: OK. Now, Mitt Romney made a complicated statement we're going to listen to here, about the oil industry and the broader energy industry. He suggested that President Obama has wildly overspent on green energy.


ROMNEY: The Department of Energy has said the tax break for oil companies is $2.8 billion a year. And it's actually an accounting treatment, as you know, that's been in place for a hundred years. Now...

OBAMA: It's time to end it.

ROMNEY: And in one year, you provided $90 billion in breaks to the green energy world.

INSKEEP: NPR's David Welna is listening in. David, with those numbers, he's saying that green energy subsidies have gone way beyond oil subsidies. Is he right?

DAVID WELNA, BYLINE: Well, the oil subsidies - he may have low-balled a bit. The Energy Department, actually, is saying they're closer to $4 billion a year. And when you look at the $90 billion that he cited, that's actually from the stimulus bill.

INSKEEP: Which was not a one-year plan but actually, a two-year.

WELNA: That was more like a three-year plan, in all. And only about a third of that $90 billion was actually for what are considered to be green energy projects. And among them, you had nuclear waste cleanup sites; and also, you had about $3 billion going to clean coal projects. And - of course - Gov. Romney said he liked coal, in another part of the debate.

INSKEEP: OK. And if you're just joining us, we're taking a close read of last night's presidential debate in Denver, trying to slow down some of the facts that were thrown out so quickly. There were many claims, for example, on Medicare and health care. And that includes claims about what would happen to today's senior citizens - under either man, as president - after this coming November. Here's one of the statements that Mitt Romney made.


ROMNEY: What I support is no change for current retirees, and near-retirees, to Medicare. And the president supports taking $716 billion out of that program.

INSKEEP: Seven-hundred-sixteen-billion dollars - that's a figure that's been given for savings in Medicare over a decade. NPR's Julie Rovner has been listening along with us. Julie, that $716 billion in savings sounds like a lot. Does it reduce care for people who are currently on Medicare?

JULIE ROVNER, BYLINE: Well, it doesn't take any money away from benefits that are guaranteed under Medicare, and that's really what the fight's been about. All of this money is coming out - these are savings to providers, in particular. Most of it is coming out - from insurance companies. These were overpayments that were given by Republicans in 2003, in the Medicare prescription drug law. Most of the rest of it's coming from hospitals and drug companies - who agreed to these cuts. They figured they could take less in Medicare payments because they'd be getting it back at the other end, by having more people with health insurance. So they'll have more paying customers.

INSKEEP: But the theory is that the care stays the same, for the average person.

ROVNER: That's right. In fact, there will be more benefits for the average senior.

INSKEEP: Now, let me ask about another statement here because President Obama drilled in on that $716 billion. And he said, hey, those savings are going to help seniors with other good things - prescription drugs, for example.


OBAMA: Seven-hundred-and-sixteen-billion dollars we were able to save from the Medicare program, by no longer overpaying insurance companies; by making sure that we weren't overpaying providers. And using that money, we were actually able to lower prescription drug costs for seniors, by an average of $600. And we were also able to make a significant dent in providing them the kind of preventive care that will ultimately, save money throughout the system.

INSKEEP: Does all the $716 billion stay with seniors?

ROVNER: No, not all of it. Some of it does go to extra prescription drug benefits, extra preventive benefits. Most of it, however, goes to help fund those subsidies - and that's what we were talking about before - so that there will be more paying customers for the hospitals and the drug companies. So it stays within the health-care system, but it doesn't necessarily stay with those seniors.

INSKEEP: OK. Much more we could discuss there - and we will discuss, in the coming days. The moderator, Jim Lehrer, last night asked the candidates - also - about a bipartisan budget commission that proposed a way to reduce the federal deficit, a couple of years ago.


JIM LEHRER: Governor, what about Simpson-Bowles? Will you support Simpson-Bowles?

ROMNEY: Simpson-Bowles - the president should have grabbed that.

LEHRER: No. I mean, do you support Simpson-Bowles?

ROMNEY: I have my own plan. It's not the same as Simpson-Bowles. But in my view, the president should have grabbed it. If you wanted to make some adjustments to it, take it, go to Congress, fight for it.

PRESIDENT: That's what we've done. Made some adjustments to it, and we're putting it forward before Congress right now, a $4 trillion plan ...

ROMNEY: But you've been - but you've been president four years. You've been president four years.

INSKEEP: OK, NPR's Scott Horsley's now at the debate center in Denver. Scott, what did you hear, there?

SCOTT HORSLEY, BYLINE: Well, it's interesting to hear Gov. Romney speaking approvingly of Simpson-Bowles. He even likened his own tax plan to theirs. And superficially, there are some similarities, when you talk about cutting rates and broadening the base. But there's a big difference. The Simpson-Bowles plan calls for - actually - drawing more revenue out of the tax system, in order to help lower the deficit. Romney insists there's no place for additional revenue, except that which comes from economic growth.

Of course, his running mate - Paul Ryan - was on the deficit cutting commission, and helped to keep it from coming to a vote in Congress - when Paul Ryan voted against it.

INSKEEP: Now, President Obama has also been blamed for not getting that Simpson-Bowles plan enacted into law - or something like it. That's the argument Mitt Romney just made.

HORSLEY: That's right. The president did not fully embrace Simpson-Bowles. He said, for example, that he doesn't approve of its big cuts in defense spending. But he also spoke approvingly tonight about the concept of having a balanced deficit-reduction plan. So you know, if everyone who spoke highly of Simpson-Bowles on the campaign trail, actually acted on that plan, we would have been cutting the deficit to a sustainable level by now.

INSKEEP: OK. That leads to one more point, one more fundamental difference that the candidates tried to lay out - a very brief bit of tape here - distinct disagreement over whether to raises taxes on the wealthy.


: Gov. Romney has ruled out revenue. He's ruled out revenue.

LEHRER: Is that - true, right?

ROMNEY: Absolutely.

INSKEEP: Absolutely - Mitt Romney is saying that he has ruled out raising additional revenue to help close the deficit. NPR's Ari Shapiro has been covering the Romney campaign; he's in Denver. Ari, what did you hear?

ARI SHAPIRO, BYLINE: OK, so this goes to the essential difference between the two men on taxes, and shrinking the deficit. There are two ways to get more money to the government. One is to raise taxes. The other is through economic growth. You get more businesses opening, more people going back to work, fewer people using government benefits; and that brings more money into the government coffers.

Barack Obama prefers what he calls a balanced approach, where you do both. You raise taxes; you also cut spending, and you rely on the economic growth to fill in the gaps. Mitt Romney says if you raise taxes, you're not going to get that economic growth. He says the only way to get more people back to work, and to get more businesses opening, is to cut taxes; and that the economic growth will therefore, take care of itself because even though tax rates are lower, you'll have more people paying them - and fewer people out of work.

INSKEEP: In either case, you're talking about an argument, here, about the future. You have to decide what you believe, on some level.

SHAPIRO: And the fact is, the men agree on the fundamentals - about shrinking the deficit, getting energy independence and improving education. They just profoundly disagree about how to get there - as we hear in that difference about taxes and revenues.

INSKEEP: And that'll have to be the last word. NPR's Ari Shapiro is in Denver, along with NPR's Scott Horsley. Thanks to both of you.

SHAPIRO: You're welcome.

HORSLEY: Good to be here.

INSKEEP: Here in Washington, NPR's David Welna, John Ydstie, Julie Rovner; thanks to you.

WELNA: You're welcome.

ROVNER: You're welcome, Steve.

YDSTIE: You're welcome. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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