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Sorting out the rhetoric at the top of the ballot

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"The War on Coal"

Republicans have been trying to convince voters in Western Pennsylvania and elsewhere that new EPA regulations on power plants constitute a "war on coal" that is hurting local industry. The outlook for coal is dim: Federal estimates predict that as many as one-sixth of the nation's older coal plants could be shut down in the next several years. (Though between 2009 and 2010, Pennsylvania's coal industry actually added jobs, according to the Energy Information Administration.) But analysts agree that federal environmental policies are far from the largest factor — in part because some regulations have either been compromised on or are in legal limbo. A recent report by the Analysis Group, a leading economic consulting firm, listed the principal factors as sharply-reduced natural gas prices, rising costs for coal and reduced power demand (stemming in part from milder winters). "These trends started well before EPA issued its new air-pollution rules," the group found.  

Taxes

Obama favors allowing Bush-era tax cuts on top earners to expire. And for high-income people — those earning more than $200,000 — he favors higher tax rates on dividends and capital gains. 

Romney has proposed a 20 percent across-the-board tax cut, which he says can be paid for by blowing up the budget by removing loopholes. But most experts say the math simply doesn't add up. According to the respected Tax Policy Center, such a change would likely "provide large tax cuts to high-income households, and increase the tax burdens on middle- and/or lower-income taxpayers." Put simply: If you want to make the tax breaks revenue-neutral, you can only do it by taxing the middle class. And if you want to avoid taxing the middle class, you can only do it by increasing the federal deficit.

Ironically, neither candidate has said much about a tax increase that is slated to come next year, when a "holiday" on Social Security taxes, during which the tax dropped from 6.2 to 4.2 percent, is set to expire. The return to the new rates will cost the average worker an estimated $1,000 each year.

Supreme Court

The oldest current member of the Supreme Court, Ruth Bader Ginsburg, is a liberal. She's also 79 years old, with a history of cancer. (The next two oldest justices, Antonin Scalia and Clarence Thomas, are conservative.) If she were replaced by a conservative, as Romney would likely do, rulings upholding the right to an abortion — and tossing out anti-sodomy laws used to target gays — could easily be overturned.

 Climate change/environment

Neither candidate has said much about the issue. But Obama has touted, and supported, tax subsidies for renewable energy, and imposed higher fuel-economy standards for automobiles. He's punted on whether to build the Keystone XL pipeline — which would open up Canadian oil-sands production that environmentalists worry would be a greenhouse disaster. 

As governor, Romney supported efforts to limit greenhouse gas emissions, and as recently as the summer of 2011, he was saying "I believe the world's getting warmer" and "that humans contribute to that." But he's backed away since. "My view is that we don't know what's causing climate change on this planet," Romney said during a 2011 stop in Pittsburgh, at the Consol Energy Center, no less. 

College aid 

Early in its term, the Obama administration largely culled private banks out of the student-loan business, and nearly tripled funding for Pell Grants, a key financial-aid program, to more than $40 billion. Obama has also taken a hard look at for-profit educators like Pittsburgh-based EDMC, and is pushing to require certain percentages of graduating students to find jobs in their field. 

Romney wants to remove the jobs requirement. But Republicans believe government funding helps drive tuition costs up — as they've continued to do — and Paul Ryan has previously proposed reducing student eligibility for Pell Grants, and capping the grant amount at $5,550 each year for several years. Still, the non-partisan New America Foundation argues that both plans depend on Congress finding money that will be hard to come by. "Both Ryan and Obama are making promises that they cannot possibly keep," the Foundation's Jason DeLisle wrote in August.

LGBT rights

The Human Rights Campaign, the nation's leading LGBT-advocacy group, calls Obama "the most pro-LGBT equality president ever." Along with scrapping the military's "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" policy, Obama scuttled the Justice Department's efforts to defend the "Defense of Marriage Act," which bars federal recognition of gay marriages. Obama has also signed hate-crimes laws targeting anti-LGBT bigotry.

Romney opposes marriage rights for same-sex couples, including civil unions. While he has questioned the timing of the "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" repeal, he has also indicated that he doesn't plan to restore that policy.

Reproductive rights

The "Obamacare" overhaul requires insurers to offer birth control as part of their basic coverage, though women employed by religious institutions must negotiate this on their own, rather than through their employer. The Obama administration has also appointed justices believed to be pro-choice, while continuing funding (for non-abortion services) to Planned Parenthood. He also overturned a policy banning federal money from being allocated to groups that provide abortions overseas.

Romney and his surrogates have frequently sent mixed signals on reproductive rights. But as near as anyone can tell, he favors abortion only in the case of rape, incest or when the life of the mother is at stake. He has expressed support for the Blunt Amendment, which would allow any employer to opt out of covering birth control. Although federal money cannot be used to pay for abortions, Romney has pledged to strip Planned Parenthood of its funding even for non-abortion services, and to re-ban funding for groups providing abortion overseas.

Supporters

Obama's $556 million in campaign fundraising outstrips Romney's $340 million — and that gap can be entirely accounted for by small individual checks of less than $200. Romney, though, has cleaned up on support from the financial industry — which has given him more than $47 million to Obama's $17 million.  Romney has also been helped by ads paid for by outside groups. As of this writing, according to the Center for Responsive Politics, roughly $250 million has been spent on ads either attacking Obama or supporting Romney. That's twice the amount being spent on anti-Romney/pro-Obama spots.

 

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