WASHINGTON – When Republican presidential hopeful Mitt Romney decried the "prairie fire" of U.S. debt Tuesday, he ignored some of the sparks that set it ablaze.
One was the Great Recession that took hold before Barack Obama became president. That landmark event went unmentioned in Romney's speech. Another was a series of Bush-era tax cuts that Romney wants to follow with even lower rates.
Instead he laid the blame on Obama, a president who has certainly increased the nation's eye-popping debt — but not, as Romney claimed, by nearly as much as all other presidents combined.
A look at some of Romney's assertions and how they compare with the facts:
ROMNEY: "America counted on President Obama to rescue the economy, tame the deficit and help create jobs. Instead, he bailed out the public sector, gave billions of your dollars to the companies of his friends, and added almost as much debt as all the prior presidents combined."
THE FACTS. Hardly. Presidents from George Washington through George W. Bush ran the national debt up to $10.62 trillion, the amount it was on the day Obama took office. Today, it is $15.67 trillion, according to the Treasury Department's Bureau of Public Debt. So it has gone up by $5.05 trillion under Obama. That's roughly half of the amount amassed by all the other presidents combined.
In short, the debt has gone up by about half under Obama. Under Ronald Reagan, it tripled.
ROMNEY: "I will lead us out of this debt and spending inferno. We will stop borrowing unfathomable sums of money we can't even imagine, from foreign countries we'll never even visit. I will bring us together to put out the fire."
THE FACTS: Romney's tax and spending plans don't support his vow to dampen the debt fire. He proposes to cut taxes and expand the armed forces, putting yet more stress on the budget, and his promise to slash domestic spending isn't backed by the big specifics. Romney's tax plan would cut the top income tax rate to 28 percent from 35 percent and other rates by 20 percent each. He says he'd broaden the tax base and eliminate many deductions in the process, but details are missing.
A study by the nonpartisan Committee for a Responsible Federal Budget concluded earlier this year that Romney's plans would not make a dent in deficits, and could worsen them considerably. That study was done before Romney upped his tax cuts, inviting even deeper debt.
That's not to say he can't at some point lay out the spending cuts necessary to achieve his aims. But he would have to slash domestic programs by more than 20 percent — far more than the 5 percent in immediate cuts he has proposed. It is nearly unthinkable that Congress would approve the evisceration of basic federal functions such as food inspection, air traffic control, the Border Patrol, FBI, grants to local governments, health research, housing and heating aid for the poor, food aid for pregnant women, national parks and much more.
Nowhere in Tuesday's speech was there a new idea of how Romney would accomplish the promised deficit reduction. He spoke generally of reforming Social Security and Medicare, eliminating duplicative government programs, and transferring some functions to the states or the private sector, adding that he would "streamline everything that's left."
The closest he has come to laying out a specific spending plan has been in his endorsement of the budget blueprint passed this year by House Republicans, which also fails to produce his promised deficit reductions.
ROMNEY: "The people of Iowa and America have watched President Obama for nearly four years, much of that time with Congress controlled by his own party. And rather than put out the spending fire, he has fed the fire. He has spent more and borrowed more. ... When you add up his policies, this president has increased the national debt by $5 trillion."
THE FACTS: Much of the increase in the debt is due to lower tax revenues from depressed corporate and individual incomes and high joblessness in the worst recession since the Great Depression. The recession officially began in December 2007, when George W. Bush was president and the national debt stood at just over $9 trillion. Financial bailouts, stimulus programs and auto rescue spending that started under Bush and continued under Obama contributed to the run-up of the debt.
But so did the Bush-era tax cuts enacted in 2001 and 2003. With bipartisan support, Congress has extended the tax cuts until the end of this year, and Romney's proposals for big cuts of his own would risk another squeeze on revenue.
To be sure, Obama as a presidential candidate in 2008 was just as eager as Romney is now to pin blame for mounting debt on a president from the other party.
Ignoring economic circumstances and the role of both parties in Congress, Obama accused President George W. Bush in that campaign of driving up debt by $4 trillion "by his lonesome" and taking out "a credit card from the Bank of China in the name of our children."