In a 54-minute stemwinder in Cleveland two weeks ago—billed as a major "reframing" address—President Obama did what has become second nature for him. He ignored his opponent's actual views to focus on make-believe.
For example, the president declared that Mr. Romney thinks "the best way to grow the economy is from the top down." This is the opposite of what the former Massachusetts governor believes.
America, Mr. Romney says on the campaign trail, has prospered because "Economic freedom is the only force that has consistently succeeded in lifting people out of poverty" and because Americans are not "limited by the circumstance of birth nor directed by the supposedly informed hand of government."
Mr. Obama also claimed Mr. Romney will "roll back regulations on . . . polluters," saying, "This is precisely what they have proposed." Grant the president this: His message is not subtle. Republicans, he's saying in so many words, want, desire and fervently seek dirty air and dirty water.
We'll see this kind of crude caricature from Team Obama virtually every day until November. It's what comes from an intellectually exhausted and desperate candidate.
There was an avalanche of such claims in Cleveland. For example, the president tried to shackle Mr. Romney with a warped description of the House Republican budget that Mr. Romney has embraced.
If the GOP budget plan is adopted, the president alleged, "10 million college students would lose an average of $1,000 each in financial aid; 200,000 children would lose the chance to get an early education" from Head Start. Furthermore, "There would be 1,600 fewer medical research grants for . . . Alzheimer's and cancer and AIDS; 4,000 fewer scientific research grants, eliminating support for 48,000 researchers, students and teachers."
Such precision. Such rubbish.
In an admission meant to be ignored by the press, Mr. Obama did obliquely mention that House Republicans have not actually called for such reductions—he claimed they "would happen" if cuts in discretionary spending over the next 10 years were "spread evenly across the budget."
There are no such cuts. Under the House GOP budget plan, discretionary spending rises to $1.212 trillion in fiscal 2022 from $1.170 trillion in the coming fiscal year—an increase of $42 billion (or 3.6%).
For good measure, Mr. Obama asserted the House GOP budget "would also take away coverage from another 19 million Americans who rely on Medicaid—including millions of nursing home patients, and families who have children with autism and other disabilities."
"This is not spin," the president insisted. "This is not my opinion. These are facts. This is what they're presenting as their plan."
One problem: The House Republican budget plan doesn't cut Medicaid. It increases Medicaid spending to $402 billion in fiscal year 2022 from $307 billion this coming fiscal year. A funding increase of nearly one-third is hardly a path to the grim world described by Mr. Obama.
The biggest difference between the House GOP budget and Mr. Obama's blueprint is that the House plan sets America on the path to a balanced budget. Mr. Obama's own Office of Management and Budget admits that his blueprint—the fiscal year 2013 budget that the House unanimously rejected in March—fails to ever balance the budget, and contemplates U.S. public debt reaching 124% of gross domestic product by 2050.
True enough, exaggeration and distortion are always present in campaigns. But Mr. Obama's misleading statements are meant to set a trap. His campaign hopes to draw the Romney camp into a mud-wrestling tit-for-tat in which both candidates end up dirtied. In that fight, they figure Mr. Obama might retain some residual presidential luster and come out on top.
The Romney campaign's challenge is to rebut Mr. Obama without lowering their candidate to the president's level or adopting his tone. Mr. Romney himself will be tempted to fact-check Mr. Obama, demanding he "stop lying about my record," in Sen. Bob Dole's immortal words to George H.W. Bush in the 1988 presidential primary. Mr. Romney must resist this.
Instead, he should focus his energies on giving Americans a sense of the leadership he would provide and the agenda he would pursue. This will reassure voters that Mr. Romney is up to the responsibilities of the Oval Office and make it harder for Mr. Obama to sell his whoppers.
This article originally appeared on WSJ.com on Wednesday, June 27, 2012.