Ferreting Out Fibs In The Second Debate Sens. Obama and McCain sparred for the second time on Tuesday night over issues such as economic regulation, health insurance, spending in Iraq and tax cuts. But were all of their claims true? NPR fact-checks the presidential debate.
NPR logo Ferreting Out Fibs In The Second Debate

Ferreting Out Fibs In The Second Debate

Despite the controlled environment and close scrutiny of Tuesday's presidential debate, Sens. Barack Obama and John McCain still made a handful of false assertions and erroneous statements.

With the help of NPR reporters, Factcheck.org and The Associated Press, we ferreted out the falsehoods and found the facts in the friction.

It's The Economy

Traders at the New York Stock Exchange
Mario Tama/Getty Images

The candidates pretty much stuck to the facts in the debate's early going. Obama did, as McCain asserted, receive the second-highest amount of campaign contributions from Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac. Between 1989 and 2008, according to the Center for Responsive Politics, Obama took in $126,349 — second only to Sen. Christopher Dodd (D-CT). McCain's campaigns received $21,550.

Obama said he wrote a letter to Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke and Treasury Secretary Henry Paulson warning them about the dangers of the subprime mortgage market. He did that in March 2007.

At one point, McCain said that Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac lit the fire of the mortgage crisis. NPR business reporter Jim Zarroli pointed out that most observers would say that the two government-sponsored enterprises played a part in the mortgage meltdown, but that there was much more to it. Securitization of mortgages played a big part because it meant mortgage servicers had no real incentive to impose strict credit standards on borrowers. And there were other reasons, such as overly aggressive mortgage brokers.

The current financial earthquake, Obama said, is the result of the failed economic policies of the past eight years. The free-market policies promulgated by President George W. Bush and underscored by McCain, Obama said, "essentially said that we should strip away regulations, consumer protections, let the market run wild, and prosperity would rain down on all of us. It hasn't worked out that way. And so now we've got to take some decisive action."

The Associated Press reported that while McCain has pushed for less regulation, he also supported a shorter leash for, and greater accountability on behalf of, Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac some two years before the financial crisis began.

Other Domestic Matters

A doctor during a checkup with a patient.

During the debate, McCain said that he'd give $5,000 to every American as a refundable tax credit on health insurance. David Welna, who covers Congress for NPR, said that under McCain's plan, it's actually $2,500 per person or $5,000 per household. "Small point," Welna said, "but he doesn't seem to remember this key distinction."

The fact that a Republican and a Democrat — President Ronald Reagan and House Speaker Thomas P. "Tip" O'Neill — sat down to strike a deal on Social Security in 1983 is a model for what to do now to save the foundering national retirement fund, McCain said. The problem with that illustration, according to Welna, is that Reagan and O'Neill actually agreed to raise payroll taxes to cover the Social Security gap and McCain says on his campaign Web site that he will not raise taxes to fix Social Security.

When McCain asserted that Obama will fine small businesses that don't insure their workers, NPR health policy correspondent Julie Rovner pointed out that under Obama's plan, the smallest businesses are exempt. On the other hand, Obama said that McCain voted against the State Children's Health Insurance Program, or SCHIP. McCain said he did so because he didn't want to finance the program by raising the tobacco tax.

On the tax issue, McCain claimed, as he has before, that Obama voted for tax increases 94 times. The count is inflated, The Associated Press reported, and includes repetitive votes and some votes that reduced taxes for the middle class while increasing them for rich people. Factcheck.org pointed out that 23 of the votes would not have raised taxes at all; seven would have reduced taxes for a lot of people and 11 would have raised taxes only on those who earn more than $1 million a year.

Foreign Affairs

Soldier in Iraq
Wathiq Khuzaie/Getty Images

At times, the truth became elastic. For instance, McCain said that one solution to the country's financial crisis is to "stop sending $700 billion a year to countries that don't like us."

The Associated Press reported that McCain was referring to the U.S. purchase of oil from hostile countries and that the $700 billion figure is misleading. One-third of the total that the U.S. spends on oil imports — a total much less than the inflated figure — goes to countries that are not hostile to the U.S., such as Britain, Canada and Mexico.

Referring to the war in Iraq, Obama said, "We're spending $10 billion dollars a month in Iraq, at a time when the Iraqis have a $79 billion surplus — $79 billion." Factcheck.org noted that Iraqis have $29 billion in the bank at present and that number could double by the end of the year.

Offshore oil drilling, McCain said, will drive down the price of oil. Actually, NPR science correspondent Richard Harris reported, the drilling would take many years to develop and would ultimately add less than 2 percent to the global oil supply and have minimal effect on oil prices.

More Fact-Checking

For more details on the candidates' claims on economic regulation, offshore drilling, oil dependence, tax cuts and health insurance, check out NPR's political blog: Vox Politics.