Double-Checking Candidates' Claims In Last Debate

Presidential hopefuls Barack Obama and John McCain debated Wednesday night at Hofstra University in New York. Renee Montagne talks with NPR reporters Chris Arnold, David Welna, Julie Rovner, David Schaper and Peter Overby to find out whether the candidates had their facts straight in their final debate before the election.

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STEVE INSKEEP, host:

It's Morning Edition from NPR News. I'm Steve Inskeep.

RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

And I'm Renee Montagne. Senators Barack Obama and John McCain debated the economy and domestic policy last night at Hofstra University on Long Island, New York. This morning, we're checking to see how closely the candidates stuck to the facts, and we've assembled a team of NPR reporters to help. There were two candidates at the debate as always, but there was another person who practically crashed the party. He's Joe the Plumber. Senator McCain actually invited him in, but he pretty much stayed the entire hour and a half. Here's Senator McCain.

Senator John McCain (Republican, Arizona; Republican Presidential Candidate): Joe wants to buy the business that's he has been in for all these years, worked 10, 12 hours a day. And he wanted to buy the business. But he looked at your tax plan, and he saw that he was going to pay much higher taxes. You were going to put him in a higher tax bracket, which was going to increase his taxes, which was going to cause him not to able to employ people.

MONTAGNE: You, of course, being Barack Obama. We're joined by Chris Arnold who covers the economy. And Chris, what do we know about Joe the Plumber?

CHRIS ARNOLD: Joe the Plumber is actually the Joe Wurzelbacher. He is from Ohio, and he confronted Obama when he was campaigning in Ohio. And he thinks his taxes would go up under Obama's plan. He's not happy about this and says that Obama's tax policy sounds socialist to him. So he's very upset.

MONTAGNE: OK, so in the debate, Joe the Plumber became a representative of the average small-business man. And would, in that case, Obama actually raise his taxes?

ARNOLD: If he's a plumber who after he's paid all his expenses, paid for his pipes and welding supplies, if he's really making more than $250,000 a year, then yes, under Obama's plan, his taxes would go up. But again that implication that that represents middle-income people is misleading. Middle-income Americans would get three times the income tax break under Obama that they would get under McCain.

MONTAGNE: Chris Arnold, thanks very much.

ARNOLD: Thanks, Renee.

MONTAGNE: And congressional correspondent David Welna joins us now to talk about one thing that the candidates talked about, and that was how much their plans that they were proposing generally would cost. And here's Senator Obama.

Senator BARACK OBAMA (Democrat, Illinois; Democratic Presidential Candidate): I have been a strong proponent of pay as you go. Every dollar that I proposed, I proposed an additional cut, so that it matches.

MONTAGNE: Is that possible?

DAVID WELNA: I actually don't think it's possible in the way that Obama has proposed it. In fact, independent analysts show that more than $280 billion of what Obama has proposed is not paid for under his plans. So there's a gap there that he really didn't explain in the debate.

MONTAGNE: You know, interestingly, the housing crisis didn't loom very large in last night's debate, but both candidates did address it in their larger economic plans. Senator McCain talked about what caused the home mortgage crisis and also a proposal for fixing it.

Senator MCCAIN: The catalyst for this housing crisis was the Fannie and Freddie Mae that caused subprime lending situation that now caused the housing market in America to collapse. I am convinced that until we reverse this continued decline in home ownership and put a floor under it, and so that people have not only the hope and belief they can stay in their homes and realize the American dream, that that value will come up.

MONTAGNE: Now, when Senator McCain blames Freddie and Fannie for starting this meltdown, how does that square with his proposal to buy these troubled mortgages at the value they currently are? In other words to do, in a way, what Freddie and Fannie did.

WELNA: Well, Renee, if you're going to argue that people should be able to stay in their homes and realize the American dream, are you at the same time going to blame these entities for helping that dream become possible? McCain ended up essentially making the same argument that groups pressuring Fannie and Freddie had made, that these families who now have troubled mortgages do deserve to be homeowners even if they don't have the means to do so.

MONTAGNE: David, thanks very much. Congressional correspondent David Welna. And the candidates argued very briefly about one health issue that many people care about. Here's Senator McCain.

Senator MCCAIN: You're running ads right now that say that I oppose federal funding for stem cell research. I don't.

MONTAGNE: Julie Rovner covers health policy. And Julie, does Senator McCain oppose or is he in favor of federal funding for stem cell research?

JULIE ROVNER: Well, he's certainly in favor of federal funding for a non-controversial stem cell research, things like adult stem cell research. What's at issue is funding for embryonic stem cell research. Now, in the past this has been a place where Senator McCain has broken with both President Bush and most of the pro-life community, but in several debates recently with representatives of the McCain campaign, they've refused to say whether as president he would sign those very bills that he has voted for as a member of the Senate.

MONTAGNE: Well, this gets us into another discussion about negative ads. And stay with us, Julie, but we're joined now by David Schaper. He's in Chicago. And David, the most talked about negative ad that John McCain is running is about Barack Obama's association with Bill Ayers. Here's Obama's defense last night.

Senator OBAMA: Forty years ago, when I was eight years old, he engaged in despicable acts with a radical domestic group. I have roundly condemned those acts. Ten years ago, he served and I served on a school reform board that was funded by one of Ronald Reagan's former ambassadors and close friends.

MONTAGNE: David Schaper, who's right?

DAVID SCHAPER: Well, Senator Obama did work with Ayers, as he said. But you know, there were also several conservative and respected civic and business leaders in Chicago served on that board too. And the school reform efforts themselves were very mainstream. They were supported by Illinois' Republican Governor at that time, Jim Edgar.

Now, Obama and Ayers did cross paths elsewhere. They're on the board of the Woods Fund, a Chicago charity. They lived in the same neighborhood. And Ayers hosted a little getting to know you coffee at his house for Obama. It wasn't a fundraiser, as some have characterized it, and it did not launch Obama's political career, as McCain alleged.

MONTAGNE: David Schaper talking to us from Chicago. There was more on the overall negative tone of the campaign, and Senator Obama made this charge.

Senator OBAMA: A hundred percent, John, of your ads. A hundred percent of them have been negative.

Senator MCCAIN: It's not true.

Senator OBAMA: It absolutely is true.

MONTAGNE: Peter Overby covers campaign finance issues. And Peter, a hundred percent, I mean, could that be true?

PETER OVERBY: That's actually pretty close if you are talking about one week. The week of September 28, there was a study done that showed that nearly 100 percent of McCain's ads were negative that week. In comparison, Obama's ads that week were 34 percent negative. Now, over the course of the campaign, yes, McCain has run positive ads, and so has Obama. But McCain's ads have tended to be more negative. Now, McCain also made another point that Obama has spent more money on negative ads than anyone else, and he's right.

MONTAGNE: But then of course, Peter, Obama has spent more on ads generally than anybody else has in history.

OVERBY: That's true. Obama is spending more on everything than any other candidate in history because he's taking private money. McCain is taking public money and he has a spending cap. Obama does not.

MONTAGNE: Peter, thanks very much.

OVERBY: Thank you, Renee.

MONTAGNE: After going back and forth about those negative ads, the candidates went back to some of the big issues. And one of them was health care. Here's one claim Barack Obama made.

Senator OBAMA: We estimate we can cut the average family's premium by about $2,500 per year.

MONTAGNE: Julie Rovner, you're still with us. Can Obama do that?

ROVNER: Well, a lot of people have looked at these plans. And I think just about the only people who think he can do that are the people who wrote the plan. Actually Senator Obama's and Senator McCain's plans for cost cutting are pretty similar, and Senator McCain isn't making that same claim.

MONTAGNE: And Julie, one last thing, Joe the Plumber showed up again when Senator McCain said that small employers, like Joe the Plumber hopes to be, would have to provide health care or pay a fine under Senator Obama's health plan. True or false?

ROVNER: False. Unless, Joe the Plumber has a lot of employees, a very successful firm, he would be exempt from Senator Obama's requirements for providing health insurance. And there is no fine, even if Joe the Plumber has a lot of employees and was part of Senator Obama's plan. He would either have to provide health insurance or he would pay into a large pool from which the government would help pay for his employees.

MONTAGNE: Julie, thanks very much, and thanks to all of you. Julie Rovner covers health care. Chris Arnold covers the economy. David Welna covers Congress. David Schaper is NPR's correspondent in Chicago. And Peter Overby covers money and politics. And this is just one part of NPR's fact checking of last night's debate. You can find more facts being checked at npr.org. This is Morning Edition from NPR News.

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A Debate Fact-Check: Say, Is It So, Joe?

Barack Obama and John McCain both smile for the camera. i i

hide captionThe candidates were all smiles at the moment this photo was taken, but the debate was often contentious.

Mario Tama/Getty Images
Barack Obama and John McCain both smile for the camera.

The candidates were all smiles at the moment this photo was taken, but the debate was often contentious.

Mario Tama/Getty Images

The third and final presidential debate at Hofstra University in Hempstead, N.Y., is in the history books. This was the last scheduled opportunity for Sens. John McCain and Barack Obama to go mano a mano on prime-time television before the Nov. 4 election.

Both men shook hands, smiled on occasion and acknowledged the long, hard slog toward the election. Obama stumbled at times. McCain referred to Freddie Mae, instead of Freddie Mac, and had a little trouble pronouncing Joe "the Plumber" Wurzelbacher's last name. (For future reference, Senator, The Associated Press reports that it's pronounced whur-zell-BAHK-er.)

With the help of NPR reporters, let's see if the candidates got some other facts straight.

The Campaign

Not too long into the evening, McCain pressed Obama about his association with the community organizing group ACORN that has been accused of registering phantom voters.

In regard to ACORN, says Peter Overby, who writes about power, money and influence for NPR, Obama presented, as usual, what you might call the narrowest possible view of his connections. The true relationship is less than clear, given ACORN's complex organization. For more details, go to Overby's story.

At one point, McCain and Obama sparred over who was running more negative ads. Obama said McCain's ad buys were 100 percent negative; McCain said that wasn't true and that Obama was spending more on negative ads. Overby says they're both essentially right.

The Wisconsin Advertising Project (at the University of Wisconsin-Madison) found that McCain's percentage of negative ads was higher than Obama's and that around the end of September it tipped to nearly 100 percent negative. At the same time, oddly, Obama's mix became roughly two-thirds positive. But, Overby adds, when McCain said Obama was spending more on negative ads, he was correct — Obama is spending more on everything than any other presidential candidate ever. That's because, as McCain noted, Obama opted out of public financing. McCain also opted out of public financing — in the primaries. "As noble as public financing might be," Overby says, "candidates will go without it when they can because it comes with spending limits."

National Security

Obama commended McCain for standing up to the Bush administration on torture. McCain did insist that the armed forces follow the Army Field Manual guidelines on interrogation, according to NPR Capitol Hill correspondent David Welna, and that did become law. But McCain gave in to the administration's insistence that U.S. officials who are not in the armed forces not be constrained by the Army Field Manual.

This is widely regarded, Welna says, among human-rights advocates as a capitulation, since even military officers can "sheep dip" by temporarily stepping out of their roles as members of the military to use interrogation techniques not permitted by the Army Field Manual.

Economy

In the debate, McCain blamed Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac for starting the housing crisis that led to the economic crisis. He said the government-sponsored enterprises pushed too hard to let people of modest means buy homes. On the other hand, McCain also says we should allow families to remain in homes and realize the American dream. Welna points out that it's not possible to have it both ways.

Foreign Policy

McCain said that Obama's vice presidential candidate, Sen. Joseph Biden, had a plan to divide Iraq into three countries. That is not what Biden proposed, says NPR's diplomatic correspondent Michele Kelemen. In an op-ed that Biden wrote in The Washington Post about how his plan was to decentralize power in Iraq, he said the central government would be in charge of border security and the distribution of oil revenue.

Taxes

Obama said he will offer a tax cut to 95 percent of Americans. Republicans point out that that's impossible since a third of Americans don't pay income taxes at all. Technically the Republican critics are right, says NPR correspondent Chris Arnold. Those people would get a "refundable tax credit" — sort of a tax-rebate check. Obama says it's basically a tax cut because those people pay other types of taxes, such as payroll taxes. The Republicans respond that it will be like a welfare check, a sort of handout to the poor. McCain can't be too opposed to these sorts of tax credits since he supports the same "refundable tax credits" to help people pay for health care.

Health Care

Subsidies to insurance companies, Obama said, are about $15 billion per year. Actually, according to the Medicare Payment Advisory Commission, they add up to about $10 billion. But NPR health policy correspondent Julie Rovner says Obama was correct that it's basically just pure profit to the companies. She adds that Democrats have been complaining about it since the Medicare Modernization Act — which boosted payments to entice more insurers to participate in Medicare — was passed in 2003.

McCain says he doesn't oppose federal funding for stem-cell research. It's true; he doesn't. But, Rovner says, McCain's aides have been very cagey about saying whether, as president, McCain would lift President Bush's current restrictions on funding for embryonic stem-cell research, which McCain has voted for in the past.

Obama said he will save the average family $2,500 in premiums on health care through his cost-cutting measures. Many analysts say that's optimistic, Rovner reports.

McCain said he will give every American family a $5,000 tax credit to help buy health insurance. That's true, Rovner says — but individuals would get only $2,500. McCain also says he wants to put medical records "online," like the VA does. He means computerize them, not literally put them online for anyone to see. Obama wants to do that, too. In fact, the cost-cutting proposals of the McCain and Obama plans overlap considerably.

When McCain said that the diagnosis of autism is on the rise, he was right, reports NPR's science correspondent Richard Harris. However, as the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention puts it: "It is unclear how much of this increase is due to changes in how we identify and classify ASDs [autism spectrum disorders] in people, and how much is due to a true increase in prevalence."

For even more checked facts, check out NPR's political blog: Vox Politics.

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