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Fact checking the CNN debate in Arizona

at 01:05 AM ET, 02/23/2012

It’s hard to believe we’ve fact checked all of the GOP debates — and this may be the last one. But once again we heard a blizzard of dubious statements, including many oldies but goodies. Here is an examination of ten claims, in the order in which they were said.

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As usual, we do not award Pinocchios for debate roundups but reserve the option to revisit some of these claims in more detail in the coming days.

“Obviously the first thing we need to do is repeal “Obamacare.” That’s one entitlement that we can get rid of. And that’s a couple trillion dollars in spending over the next 10 years.”

— Rick Santorum

Santorum is only counting one side of the ledger — and overcounting it at that. Because the health care law raises some taxes and cuts Medicare spending, the Congressional Budget Office calculated that it slightly reduced the deficit in the first 10 years, though much of the law was not fully implemented in the first four years. All bets are off in the next 10 years, however.

“During his [Santorum’s] term in the Senate, spending grew by some 80 percent of the federal government.”

— Mitt Romney

“The 12 years I was in the United States Senate, we went from — the debt-to-GDP ratio, which is now over a hundred percent — when I came to the Senate, it was 68 percent of GDP. When I left the Senate, it was 64 percent of GDP. So government as a size of the economy went down when I was in the United States Senate.”

— Santorum

Aren’t statistics fun? Romney pretends that Santorum — one of 100 senators in a bicameral legislature — was responsible for boosting all federal spending while in office.

But Santorum has spending going down as a percentage of the economy in the same period.

Santorum, by placing his statistics in context, has the better argument here. Romney, using raw figures, ignores the impact of inflation and population growth on federal spending.

So, yes, federal spending went up from $1.516 trillion in 1995, when Santorum entered the Senate, to $2.729 trillion in 2007, when he left office. That is a gain of 80 percent over 12 years, but when adjusted for inflation it turns into just an increase of 35 percent, according to the White House historical tables. (Table 1.3)

“Governor Romney raised $700 million in taxes and fees in Massachusetts.”

— Santorum

Santorum may be too conservative here with his figures. We’ve noted before that Romney as Massachusetts governor added hundreds of millions of dollars in fees and closed what he called tax loopholes worth as much as $1.2 billion.

“When I was speaker, as I’m sure he remembers, we balanced the budget for four consecutive years, for the only time in his lifetime.”

— Newt Gingrich

Ugh, this old saw again. It’s simply not true, no matter how often Gingrich says it. There are three key problems with his claim.

First, he was only speaker for two of those years. He left in January 1999; the budget ran a surplus in the fiscal years of 1998, 1999, 2000 and 2001.

Second, Gingrich opposed two tax-raising budget deals in 1990 and 1993 that were mostly responsible for bringing the budget into balance. The budget was also balanced because, during the Gingrich years, the Democratic White House and Republican Congress were in absolute legislative stalemate, so neither side could implement grand plans to increase spending or cut taxes. (Look what happened with tax cuts — and the surplus — when a Republican president followed Clinton.)

Third, the gross debt kept rising because the surplus included money earmarked for Social Security. Thus, even during the surplus years, the gross debt (including bonds issued to Social Security and Medicare) rose by $400 billion. Gross debt is the figure that conservatives tend to use. During Gingrich’s time as speaker, the public debt was essentially flat, and the gross debt rose $700 billion.

“I wrote an op-ed in the paper and I said, absolutely not, don’t write a check for $50 billion. These [auto] companies need to go through a managed bankruptcy just like airlines have, just like other industries have. Go through a managed bankruptcy.”

— Romney

With the Michigan primary coming up, Romney is still paying a political price for the headline on that opinion article: “Let Detroit Go Bankrupt.” His argument was actually a little more nuanced, but as we have written, he has never explained how the auto companies could have survived a bankruptcy when the credit markets were frozen and there was literally no financing.

Interestingly, Romney ignored the observation made by moderator John King that Bush administration officials at the time believed “nobody would give the auto companies money — and that their choice, they say, at the time was to either give [them] government money or have them liquidate.”

Romney thus is being disingenuous when he claims that the Obama administration approved a bankruptcy plan when “they finally realized I was right.” (We gave him Two Pinocchios for the way he spins that opinion article.)

Romney is also wrong to claim that “the president gave the companies to the United Auto Workers.” Obama certainly allowed the UAW to end up with a better deal than they would have gotten in a traditional bankruptcy but the auto unions do not own the car companies.

“Not once in the 2008 campaign — not once did anybody in the elite media ask why Barack Obama voted in favor of legalizing infanticide. OK? So let’s be clear here. If we’re going to have a debate about who the extremist is on these issues, it is President Obama, who as a state senator voted to protect doctors who killed babies who survived the abortion. It is not the Republicans.”

— Gingrich

Newt, we are wounded! Isn’t The Washington Post part of the elite media?

Michael Dobbs, our predecessor as The Fact Checker, examined this claim when GOP vice presidential candidate Sarah Palin publicly raised it during the 2008 campaign. She ended up with Two Pinocchios, with Dobbs ruling that “it is unfair to accuse Obama of supporting the withdrawal of medical treatment from babies born as the result of a botched abortion.” He said Obama had never taken that position during debates in the Illinois state legislature.

More recently, our colleagues at PolitiFact reexamined the controversy when Santorum claimed that Obama, “in his own words,” said babies born prematurely could be killed. He earned a “Pants on Fire” ruling.

“The public health department was prepared to give a waiver to Catholic hospitals about a morning-after abortion pill, and that the governor’s office issued explicit instructions saying that they believed it was impossible under Massachusetts law to give them that waiver.”

— Gingrich

This is a gentler version of a claim that both Santorum and Gingrich have made on the campaign trail, earning them each Two Pinocchios. We examined this bit of Massachusetts political history earlier this month. Gingrich’s description here is fairly accurate, in contrast to the campaign rhetoric. Romney certainly shifted with the political winds at the time.

“Our bill [Romneycare] was 70 pages; his bill [Obamacare] is 2,700 pages.”

— Romney

As we have noted before, this is a specious claim that previously earned Romney a Pinocchio. He is double-counting pages and adding things that had little to do with health care. The correct comparison is about 145 pages (Romneycare) to 200 pages (Obamacare).

During the debate, Gingrich also referenced the health care law’s supposed page count, which really is a meaningless measurement of a law.

“This is a dictator [Iran’s Mahmoud Ahmadinejad] who said he wants to eliminate Israel from the face of the Earth”

— Gingrich

This claim is often asserted but when we looked closely at what Ahmadinejad actually said, there’s surprisingly less evidence than one would expect for such a frequent refrain by American politicians. It’s a Pinocchio-worthy statement without the proper context.

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    About the Blogger

    Glenn Kessler has covered foreign policy, economic policy, the White House, Congress, politics, airline safety and Wall Street.

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