Bill Clinton: Our arithmetic teacher

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

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.

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.

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.

You can also learn about all our free newsletter options.

Comments (36)

  1. Submitted by Tom Christensen on 09/06/2012 - 10:22 am.

    Republican platform exposed to daylight

    Bill Clinton laid out in clean detail the Republican’s positions last night. The Republican’s souls were exposed and it was not a pretty site. The Republican positions were brought from behind the veil of secrecy and they just can’t stand the test of daylight. The election is not over with because people have to show up at the polls. It took George W. Bush eight years to run our country beyond the ditch into a financial canyon. The Bush Administration left a huge mess in their wake. It will take longer than 4 years to clean up the mess. If voters look past the Republican rhetoric of lies and deception and vote for moving this country forward, President Obama will be given four more years to continue moving the country forward. It is time for the tea party nonsense to end. America was not made great by one party or another. It became great because we worked together. Working together is not in the tea party lexicon so there is absolutely no hope at all of moving forward if the tea party candidates continue to be elected. We have seen the effects of the tea party for the last 4 years. Obstructionism is their only goal. Voters, the Republicans have sent you a very strong message, which says they are bankrupt in all respects. Vote to move the country forward in November. The choice is yours.

  2. Submitted by Peder DeFor on 09/06/2012 - 10:54 am.


    I fully agree that the Ryan plan needs more work. I don’t think it’s as much smoke and mirrors as you do. However, before anyone on the left gets on their high horse about deficit reduction, what kind of alternative is Obama offering? His claims to long term reduction are all phony. He’s going to reduce spending on Iraq and Afghanistan? Good deal! But that isn’t really a ‘savings’.
    Here in the DeFor household I’ve also decided not to spend 4 trillion dollars on Iraq and Afghanistan over the next decade. If I go to the bank and explain these ‘savings’ to me, they won’t suddenly give me heaps of cash in a fit of gratitude. (At least I think so. If anyone knows differently, please let me know the name of the bank!)
    If Dems are really confident about their positions on deficits, debt and overall employment, why all the dishonesty?

    • Submitted by Tim Walker on 09/06/2012 - 11:18 am.


      Peder writes: “He’s [President Obama] going to reduce spending on Iraq and Afghanistan? Good deal! But that isn’t really a ‘savings’.”

      Nice rhetorical trick. NOT.

      GOPers say their proposals to reduce spending on social services (or to eliminate the EPA) also produce “savings.”

      Are you as critical of them when they say that?

      If you are, then you are against the entire GOP plan to reduce the deficit: cut spending, no new taxes. Because those “savings” aren’t real, either.

      Or are only Dem “savings” not real?

      • Submitted by Peder DeFor on 09/06/2012 - 12:11 pm.

        Expected Spending

        But we *expect* to spend money on various government programs. And if you have a cite for eliminating the EPA, provide it or retract. We don’t expect to spend war time money on Iraq and Afghanistan.
        I know that comparisons between household budgets and governmental budgets are problematic but I think this limited comparison is apt. If I buy a large, one time purchase like a car, I don’t save money by not buying a car every year. If I cut some expected recurring cost, like a cable bill, then I’m actually reducing the budget and saving money. Obama is doing nothing about the recurring costs.

        • Submitted by Tim Walker on 09/06/2012 - 03:18 pm.

          Peder: Both Ron Paul and Rick Perry have proposed eliminating the EPA.

          So, no retraction forthcoming. Sorry!

          • Submitted by Peder DeFor on 09/06/2012 - 09:38 pm.

            Oh, got it.

            If any Republican anywhere proposes something, then Romney is responsible for it and it should be assumed that he’ll do it. That makes total sense. And is a totally fair argument.

            • Submitted by Tim Walker on 09/07/2012 - 07:41 am.

              Not so fast

              Um … in case you didn’t notice, the thread conversation had expanded to include general Dem and GOP economic policies.

    • Submitted by Paul Brandon on 09/06/2012 - 12:25 pm.

      WHAT Ryan plan?

      Name one tax loophole that he’s going to cut to increase revenue.

  3. Submitted by Kenneth Kjer on 09/06/2012 - 11:04 am.

    Tax Deductions

    No matter what you call it, if a tax deduction is eliminated, it creates a tax increase. When the Republicans say they are going to eliminate loopholes, no matter which ones they are, they are increasing taxes, which they adamantly deny.

  4. Submitted by Ron Brochu on 09/06/2012 - 11:19 am.

    Clinton’s math

    Unfortunately, Clinton didn’t address the Democrats’ math on making the “rich” pay a “fair share” of taxes. That doesn’t total anywhere near enough to retire the deficit, unless you redefine rich to include most of the middle class.

    • Submitted by Paul Brandon on 09/06/2012 - 03:39 pm.

      No one said it did

      Balancing the budget also means eliminating the expense of two wars, and weapons systems that even the generals don’t want. And reducing Medicare/Medicaid payments to private insurance companies. Etc…

      And the maths of taxes depend on whether you’re talking just about personal income tax, or whether you include things like capital gains taxes.

      And anyone living in this world knows that eliminating the deficit is not going to happen in one year, or even four, unless you find it acceptable to eliminate ALL public expenditures on anything but ‘defense’ (scare quotes because most of it doesn’t defend us against any real threat).

  5. Submitted by Neal Rovick on 09/06/2012 - 11:27 am.

    Take the Republicans at their word.

    The first thing they have promised to do is stop the ACA. And then cut taxes.

    They are very muted about what will happen to those who have gotten coverage, paid for prescriptions or otherwise benefited from the ACA changes.

    But perhaps even more significantly, they have moved the bankruptcy date for Medicare back to 2016–the end of the putative Romney/Ryan first term.

    What do they propose to do about that, that crisis coming down the track like a freight train?

    If they carry through on their promised tax cuts and “no new taxes”, how do you deal with the impending bankruptcy? How do you do it without affecting near and current retirees? This is what Romney and Ryan should be asked.

    The math doesn’t work here. They have no plan. And it certainly will affect near and current retirees.

    And then they should be asked about the block-granting of Medicaid. A large majority of people in nursing homes, both Republicans and Democrats, are on Medicaid. It’s a fact. A limited block model grant means that the already pretty-grim existence in many nursing homes will become even worse. What is their answer for that? Take Grandma or Grandpa home? Turn your head and pretend they are getting adequate care? Or should relatives and friends be expected to pay more out-of-pocket? It’s a question that will affect a surprisingly large portion of the population and will affect a significant portion of the spending patterns in the world’s largest consumer economy.

    Again, the math doesn’t work and they have no plan. And it WILL affect near and current retirees.

    Mr. Bain Corporation (corporations are people!!) and Mr. Ayn Rand certainly will never have to worry about these questions on a personal level. Perhaps they need to have it brought to their attention.

    Or is it that they just don’t care?

  6. Submitted by Ginny Martin on 09/06/2012 - 12:11 pm.

    President Clinton

    I was riveted by President Clinton’s address, no matter how long it went on. He did tackle most of the republicans’ biggest programs and described in detail why they won’t work–or is they do, how much damage they will do to the middle and lower classes. I’m sure some of the details are inaccurate, and factcheckers will find them.
    But if you compare what the republicans presented compared to the Democrats, there’s a huge gap in believability and accuracy.
    Clinton is still a master, and extemporaneously at least in part at that. I laughed out loud at some of his comments–like arithmetic.
    And I liked how he emphasized what our country has always been about–until recently–that we are all in this together. Unless we understand that and start working toward a vision of America that is community minded, we are going to continue to decline.

  7. Submitted by Dennis Tester on 09/06/2012 - 12:20 pm.

    I didn’t watch Clinton’s speech

    I can’t rationalize, as others can apparently, how an impeached and disbarred serial sexual predator, convicted perjurer in a sexual harrassment case and accused rapist is cheered and treated as a party hero by those who claim it’s the other guys who harm the women folk. And so I refuse to give him my attention.

    Nevertheless, whenever he took credit for the balanced budget and booming economy that happened while he was president, as I’m sure Bill Clinton did, that he was sure to credit the republican congress. Because the truth is, all of his alleged accomplishments, from the four balanced budgets that he reluctantly signed, to welfare reform that he reluctantly signed, etc. came from signing Newt Gingrich’s legislation.

    I wonder if the fact-checkers wll mention that.

    • Submitted by Neal Rovick on 09/06/2012 - 04:35 pm.


      Don’t you think the real lack of substantial cooperation in the last few years is the direct result of the cooperation between Clinton and Republicans?

      Things got done, the economy improved, the budget was balanced, on and on…

      Clinton ended up as one of the most popular ex-presidents.

      Can’t risk that happening with Obama.

  8. Submitted by Rich Crose on 09/06/2012 - 12:27 pm.

    Best Speech since Giuliani

    Rhetorically, it was one of the better speeches of modern times. This was the best speech I’ve heard since Rudy Giuliani’s 2004 convention speech.

    Giuliani used images of 9/11 and references Churchill and Lincoln to show how the President was a man, directed by God, to make the difficult decisions in a time of war. He used simple home-grown language with such passion that he convinced a lot of undecided voters to vote for the man-who-should-not-be-named.

    That convention came after the Democratic convention where Kerry made a lack-luster speech like Willard did this year. (Those creepy eyes! I can still feel my skin crawl.)

    If any undecided voter watched the Republican convention last week then listened to Bill Clinton last night, they are no longer undecided. He addressed any fears someone would have if Obama were re-elected and fended off Republican attacks made last week (like Giuliani) and finally tried to convince us that we’re moving in the right direction. He did it with his aw-shucks Arkansas drawl that he turned off and on perfectly to give him authority as a man of the people.

  9. Submitted by Lance Groth on 09/06/2012 - 12:29 pm.

    Master of the Game

    I haven’t watched much convention coverage on either side, but I did watch Clinton’s speech, and I had to simply sit back and marvel as a true master of the game showed us how it’s done. No other president or candidate in my lifetime has had the mix of intelligence, humor, rhetorical skill, downhome folksiness and star-power charisma that Clinton does. I was too young to remember Kennedy, and while Reagan had many of the same speech-making qualities and was labelled the Great Communicator, Clinton does it better, because he’s smarter and has a much better command of the facts. I don’t know how he does it, but somehow he makes people feel like he’s talking directly to them rather than just giving a speech. Obama, while he has great oratorical skill, is too cool and dispassionate to reach people the same way.

    Like many, I wish that I could vote for Bill again. It was great fun seeing the comeback kid in full-throated roar again.

  10. Submitted by Richard Voorhees on 09/06/2012 - 01:11 pm.


    This morning I was in South St. Paul and St. Paul to visit my barber and buy groceries. I encountered several groups huddled together talking politics from varying viewpoints. It seems that Bill has got people talking to each other.

  11. Submitted by Ron Gotzman on 09/06/2012 - 02:10 pm.

    Typical Mr. Black article

    This is just another criticism of the GOP and its budget plan with no equal criticism of Obama’s budget and deficit plan.

    A true “deficit hawk,” as Mr. Black describes himself, would be outraged at the debt, deficits, and spending of B.O.

    Arithmetic also applies to the Obama Budget. Of course, the President’s budget did not get one vote in congress and not one word of criticism from Mr. Black.

    Mr. Black also offers no criticism of Amy K. and her fellow Democratic “deficit hawks” for their failure to produce a budget in three years.

    It must be boring for Mr. Black to constantly spin attacks on the GOP while remaining silent when it comes to Obama and the Democrats.

    Romney is not the incumbent. Obama has a record of spending and debt which Mr. Black conveniently ignores.

    Mr. Black is more that welcome to criticize the GOP, however, no criticism of the Obama’s spending, debt, and deficits does not “add up.”

    • Submitted by Tom Christensen on 09/06/2012 - 04:17 pm.

      Those darn tax and spend Democrats

      They call the Democrat’s the tax and spend folks. Yup, every time the Democrat’s have to clean up after a Republican president there is major clean up involved. Have you notice the Republican’s have stopped saying “In the tradition of Ronald Reagan”? That is because Reagan’s policies, just as George W. Bush’s policies, were dismal failures. America became great by working together and compromising. Compromising is not even in the Republican’s dictionary anymore. The republican’s couldn’t figure out if they should cozy up to those calling themselves the tea party. They now have their answer. The tea party has taken the Republican Party right to its knees and made it totally dysfunctional. Right now, not even Republican’s like their candidate choices or political platform. Romney has stated he doesn’t like the platform. There is no one to work with on the other side of the aisle for Democrat’s. It took Republican’s eight very long years to drive the country past the ditch right into a financial canyon. It will surly take more than four years to work our way out of it. The Republican’s have some soul searching to do to figure out who they want to be. Will they be a party that can be worked with – who knows? Right now the Republican Party is sending the voters a huge message; they are bankrupt in all respects. Voters, it is your choice in November which way you want our country to go.

    • Submitted by RB Holbrook on 09/07/2012 - 09:21 am.

      Where’s the balance?!

      Why is it that every article that mentions something negative that may be attributed to a Republican has to be countered withan equivalent attack on a Democrat?

      Republicans are yelling themselves hoarse about the definicit and the national debt. Fine. If that’s their big issue, let’s hear their plans and let’s evaluate them.

      There just aren’t enough hours in the day for anyone to respond to all the “whuddabouts” the right-wing insists on throwing down. Distrations? Changing the subject? Poor grasp of logic? I can’t decide.

  12. Submitted by Paul Brandon on 09/06/2012 - 03:47 pm.

    A bad case of B.O.

    Beyond that, if you can read a graph you’ll see that the current recession and resulting deficit began in 2007. Obama did not take office until 2009.

    Another inconvenient fact is that Obama has in fact reduced government spending radically.
    The main increase while he was in office was an artifact of his taking war spending which Bush did not put on the books (some of those expenses have never been accounted for) and made them part of the public budget.

  13. Submitted by Dennis Tester on 09/06/2012 - 04:29 pm.

    “Obama did not take office until 2009”

    No, but the democrats took over congress in 2007, right after the 2006 mid-terms and not so coincidentally, the world then turned to crap.

    • Submitted by Paul Brandon on 09/06/2012 - 05:05 pm.

      Mostly because

      the Republicans decided that they were going to be obstructionist.
      Unfortunately, according to current (not constitutional) rules, it takes a sixty percent supermajority to effectively pass legislation, and (or course) an executive branch to execute it.

    • Submitted by Tom Lynch on 09/06/2012 - 05:23 pm.


      What legislation did they pass….and Bush sign…..that caused the world to turn to crap?

      • Submitted by RB Holbrook on 09/07/2012 - 03:25 pm.

        They were allowed to breathe!

        It doesn’t matter. Mr. Tester has an objection to the very existence of anyone who disagrees with his politics.

  14. Submitted by Ray Schoch on 09/06/2012 - 07:07 pm.

    It’s kind of fun…

    …even more than a decade later, to see Republicans rendered apoplectic by Clinton’s skill at connecting with people. It hurts even more now, of course, because the Republican ticket manifestly lacks that same skill. They might still get elected, which would be sad, but if they do, it won’t be because they’re empathetic.

    Lots of smoke and mirrors on both sides, but quite a bit more on the Republican side. To a greater degree than ideologues on either side would like, there’s really not “Republican” math or “Democratic” math. There’s just math – or arithmetic – and while Obama isn’t above fudging some numbers himself from time to time, the Ryan budget exists in a different universe, where the laws of arithmetic don’t appear to apply. I’d submit that such a place doesn’t exist.

    Mr. Romney has no idea what life is like for the 99 percent, never having experienced it for any length of time longer than a campaign stop.

    Mr. Obama is not immune to this sort of thing, either, but his childhood was, to phrase it as mildly as I can, dramatically different from that of Mr. Romney.

    The behavior of each man after getting out of college is also more than a little revealing. One started with a fortune and made it bigger, largely to the benefit of himself and his family. One started with very little, and made a modest fortune after helping the poor in several communities organize to better those same communities. Nothing wrong with either path, but one of them seems far more likely to be able to identify with the problems of ordinary people.

    I’ve not watched even a minute of either convention. Since the nominees of each party have been a foregone conclusion for some time, it just didn’t seem necessary. While I CAN be inspired by a good political speech, I don’t need to hear one to decide who I’m going to vote for.

    But that’s me. It seems fairly obvious that the political season has the juices running among some MinnPost commentators, and of course the people who like to think they’re conservative are not immune to that, either.

  15. Submitted by Richard Schulze on 09/06/2012 - 08:30 pm.

    David Stockman, the wild-eyed leftist radical who ran Ronald Reagan’s budget, calls Mr Ryan’s budget plan “devoid of credible math or hard policy choices”.

    If Romney/Ryan come out in favor of a plan, they ought to attach some numbers. If they don’t, then we’ll be clear on what’s actually going on here, which, it seems to me, is nothing but the same old problem the Republican Party has been facing since 2000, if not indeed since 1980. The GOP is committed to a mathematically impossible sweetener of massive tax cuts for the rich, lower deficits, and no major cuts to popular big-ticket government programs.

    Mr. Ryan voted for TARP, the auto-industry bail out, Medicare expansion, and two wars on the Chinese credit card. How is that consistent with someone who wants to decimate the government, or at least curb government spending? Also, how can an individual who votes for all of that spending after voting for the Bush tax cuts be considered an individual who wants to balance the budget? Frankly, this makes little sense to me.

  16. Submitted by colin kline on 09/06/2012 - 09:46 pm.

    Obama re-election

    I can’t wait for the steam to come pouring out of tester and swift’s ears when President Obama is re-elected, even though I will be voting for REAL change with the green party.

    • Submitted by Paul Brandon on 09/08/2012 - 02:51 pm.

      I’m sure that they’ll move to Russia

      where they can find the kind of laissez-faire free enterprise system that they like.

  17. Submitted by Maria Vas on 09/06/2012 - 11:50 pm.

    Celebrity Reaction

    Even if some people did not agree, Clinton definitely fired up some celebrities. Check out their reactions on twitter in this article!

Leave a Reply