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Bill Clinton: Our arithmetic teacher

Clinton made the case that Mitt Romney’s budget plan does not meet the fundamental rules of arithmetic.

Former President Bill Clinton waving at the beginning of Wednesday night's speech at the Democratic National Convention.
REUTERS/Jason Reed

In his big speech last night (full text here), former Pres. Bill Clinton decided to bet heavily on the quaint notion that we, the people, care about facts and arguments. I hope he’s right, although more than a billion dollars being spent on 30-second half-truths and distractions suggest that others believe he’s wrong.

Clinton didn’t mention the Swiss bank accounts, nor the Cayman Island tax shelters. Good. We already heard about that and its relevance is getting strained. In fact, despite coming from humble roots himself, Clinton didn’t say anything to reinforce the already-well-known fact that Mitt Romney had a privileged life and is now very, very wealthy. Good. The Roosevelts and the Kennedys were wealthy.

By the standards of today’s modern attention-deficit-challenged society, Clinton talked too long at last night’s Democratic convention. His key points have all been made before by the excellent news sites that fact-check the substance of the political debate. But maybe Clinton’s star power will cause his version of fact-checkery to reach a wider audience. That would be fine.

His longest segment along those lines was about the mathematics of budget, taxes, deficit and debt. But he introduced it with an older-fashioned word: arithmetic.

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Republicans rail against Pres. Obama for allowing the national debt to increase by trillions. They are right, of course, it did increase at an alarming rate since the financial collapse of 2008. I agree with Clinton, it can’t go on like forever.

But, as best one can in a speech being constantly interrupted by laughter and applause, Clinton made the case that Mitt Romney’s budget plan is not a deficit/debt reduction plan and does not meet the fundamental rules of arithmetic.

Tax cuts, deductions and credits

The Romney plan starts an across-the-board multi-trillion-dollar cut in all tax rates. The vast majority of the benefits will go to the wealthy. Romney claims that his tax plan will be revenue neutral – meaning it will raise the same amount as the current tax code. How is that possible? Because he will close enough tax loopholes to offset the rate cuts. Which tax deductions or tax credits will he eliminate?

He won’t say. He won’t say. He should be asked this question every day. In a world of substance, he could not get away with this. In that world, he would have to say.

Clinton, reasonably, argued that one of three things has to happen:

One, assuming they try to do what they say they’ll do — get rid of — cover it by deductions, cutting those deductions — one, they’ll have to eliminate so many deductions, like the ones for home mortgages and charitable giving, that middle- class families will see their tax bills go up an average of $2,000, while anybody who makes $3 million or more will see their tax bill go down $250,000.

Or, two, they’ll have to cut so much spending that they’ll obliterate the budget for the national parks, for ensuring clean air, clean water, safe food, safe air travel. They’ll cut way back on Pell grants, college loans, early childhood education, child nutrition programs, all the programs that help to empower middle-class families and help poor kids. Oh, they’ll cut back on investments in roads and bridges and science and technology and biomedical research. That’s what they’ll do. They’ll hurt the middle class and the poor and put the future on hold to give tax cuts to upper-income people who’ve been getting it all along.

Or, three, in spite of all the rhetoric, they’ll just do what they’ve been doing for more than 30 years. They’ll go and cut the taxes way more than they cut spending, especially with that big defense increase, and they’ll just explode the debt and weaken the economy, and they’ll destroy the federal government’s ability to help you by letting interest gobble up all your tax payments.

Don’t you ever forget, when you hear them talking about this, that Republican economic policies quadrupled the national debt before I took office, in the 12 years before I took office… and doubled the debt in the eight years after I left, because it defied arithmetic.

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In case that is too many words, Clinton also did an exercise in which he summarized – with plenty of partisan bias, but with plenty of substance – some of the key arguments in the election, such as this one to get the fundamental approach of his party down to one paragraph:

We Democrats, we think the country works better with a strong middle class, with real opportunities for poor folks to work their way into it, with a relentless focus on the future, with business and government actually working together to promote growth and broadly shared prosperity. You see, we believe that ‘We’re all in this together’ is a far better philosophy than ‘You’re on your own.’

Or this caustic version of the basic Republican argument for replacing Obama, and the basic counterargument:

In Tampa, the Republican argument against the president’s re-election was actually pretty simple, pretty snappy. It went something like this: ‘We left him a total mess. He hasn’t cleaned it up fast enough, so fire him and put us back in…’

I like the argument for President Obama’s re-election a lot better. Here it is. He inherited a deeply damaged economy. He put a floor under the crash. He began the long, hard road to recovery and laid the foundation for a modern, more well-balanced economy that will produce millions of good, new jobs, vibrant new businesses, and lots of new wealth for innovators.

Checking the facts

Bill Clinton is not neutral on the facts. His version of the facts also needs to be checked, and that process is already well under way. The Washington Post’s excellent Fact Checker found plenty of problems before he went to sleep last night. Ultimately, voters (if there are any) who want their final decisions to be based on facts and logic have a lot of work to do, which includes deciding which side’s lies, half-truths, distortions and illogicalities are bigger and more germane.

But for the moment, I will say that Clinton’s presentation had more substance and rated higher on the facts and logic scale than anything I heard from Tampa.

Here’s a roundup of some other reactions to Clinton’s speech.