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Fact checking the Fox News debate in Iowa

at 01:43 AM ET, 12/16/2011


(Eric Gay/AP)

It’s the final GOP debate before the Iowa caucuses. Let’s take a tour of the factually dubious statements made by the candidates, in the order in which they said them. As is our practice, we do not award Pinocchios during debate round-ups, though we will mention if a candidate has repeated something that we have previously rated.

“I balanced the budget for four straight years, paid off $405 billion in debt — pretty conservative. The first entitlement reform of your lifetime — in fact, the only major entitlement reform to now is welfare.”

— Newt Gingrich

Gingrich loves to make this claim, but it is simply not correct and is lacking context.

Listening to Gingrich, you would be forgiven for forgetting there was a president (Bill Clinton) in office at the time the nation started running a budget surplus.

Gingrich is right to assert that he and the Republican Congress prodded Clinton to move to the right and embrace such conservative notions as a balanced budget.

But the budget was balanced in part because of a gusher of tax revenues from Clinton’s 1993 deficit reduction package, which raised taxes on the wealthy and which Gingrich vehemently opposed. The budget was also balanced because 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.)

Gingrich is wrong to claim there were four years of balanced budgets when he was speaker. He left in January 1999; the budget ran a surplus in the fiscal years of 1998, 1999, 2000 and 2001. So he can at best claim two years.

As for reducing the debt by $405 billion, our math from looking at the White House historical tables shows that the publicly held debt fell $450 billion during the surplus years. (Look on page 134). But much of this was when Gingrich was no longer speaker. Even during the surplus years, however, the gross debt (including bonds issued to Social Security and Medicare) rose by $400 billion.

Gross debt is the figure that conservative tend to use. During Gingrich’s time as speaker, the public debt was essentially flat and the gross debt rose $700 billion.

“If you look at all the businesses we invested in, over a hundred different businesses, they added tens of thousands of jobs.”

— Mitt Romney

This is Romney’s standard line about his career at Bain Capital, which successfully invested in companies but sometimes profited by making cuts in jobs. We have looked into this issue and are still assessing the evidence. We cannot disprove Romney’s claim of creating “tens of thousands of jobs” but we cannot prove it either, though evidence suggests it is probably correct.

“After the debate that we had last week, PolitiFact came out and said that everything that I said was true. And the evidence is that Speaker Gingrich took $1.6 million.”

— Michele Bachmann

If you are going to quote fact checkers, you need to have your facts straight.

Bachmann, defending herself against Gingrich’s statement that her attack on his association with Freddie Mac was “factually not true,” claimed that our colleagues at PolitiFact backed her up. PolitiFact immediately tweeted: “For the record, we did not say that everything Michele Bachmann said at last week’s debate was true.”

Indeed, Politfact did not rate any of her claims on Freddie Mac and even said her statement that Obama had passed into law “socialized medicine” was worthy of a “Pants on Fire” rating. (That’s the equivalent of our Four Pinocchios.) After Thursday’s debate, PolitiFact gave her another “Pants on Fire” rating for making this claim.

“If you go back and look at the “Meet the Press” quote, it didn’t reference him [Rep. Paul Ryan, author of the House GOP Medicare plan]”

— Gingrich

Gingrich has frequently tied himself into a pretzel trying to explain why he called the House GOP Medicare plan “right-wing social engineering.” As we have explored before, he also frequently does not tell the whole story about his remarks. In this case, while Gingrich may not have uttered the name “Ryan,” he clearly was asked about the plan — and trashed it.

David Gregory, host of “Meet the Press,” tweeted during the debate: “Gingrich is wrong - my Q was directly about Ryan plan which he then called right wing social engineering back in May.”

“We all understand that the spending crisis is extraordinary, with $15 trillion now in debt, with a president that’s racked up as much debt as almost all of the other presidents combined.”

— Romney

Romney at times has asserted Obama has run up more debt than all — rather than “almost all”— previous presidents. Depending on where you start counting, this claim would be true if you include the predicted debt level at the end of Obama’s current term.

But this only works if you use the figures for publicly held debt (now about $10.3 trillion), which Romney’s staff in the past have said he is measuring.

Yet, in this instance, Romney said $15 trillion, which is the figure for gross debt (including debts the United States owes to itself, such as to the Social Security trust fund). Since the gross debt level was $10 trillion when Obama took office, it would not be correct to say he ran up more debt than all previous presidents. But like we said, Romney gave himself some wiggle room by saying “almost all.”

(This item was suggested by a tweet to #FactCheckThis. Thanks to @rloketheman)

“I’d ask, first of all, have they studied Jefferson, who, in 1802 abolished 18 out of 35 federal judges. Eighteen out of 35 were abolished.”

— Gingrich

In defending his push to eliminate the 9th circuit court because he dislikes some of their decisions, Gingrich appears to be simplifying some early American history.

The Judiciary Act of 1802 was mainly an effort to reorganize the federal court system, in part by reducing the number of judges and also easing the burden on Supreme Court justices who at the time were required to “ride circuit” and convene circuit courts.

But no circuit courts were actually eliminated; it was just that the number of judges were reduced. (Gingrich may also be off on the number; we have seen references to 16 judges losing their jobs.)

“There’s no U.N. evidence of that happening [Iran developing a nuclear weapon]. [James] Clapper in our national security department, he says there is no evidence…. They don’t have a weapon. They don’t have a nuclear weapon.”

— Ron Paul

“The reason why I would say that is because we know without a shadow of a doubt that Iran will take a nuclear weapon, they will use it to wipe our ally Israel off the face of the map, and they’ve stated they will use it against the United States of America. … We have an IAEA report that just recently came out that said literally Iran is within just months of being able to obtain that weapon.”

— Bachmann

Both Paul and Bachmann stretch the evidence to offer their very different takes on Iran and its nuclear ambitions.

James Clapper, the director of national intelligence, said the United States did not know if Iran was pursuing nuclear weapons but that its programs gave it the option to do so. Similarly, the most recent report by the International Atomic Energy Agency made no prediction about Iran being months away from a weapon, but warned that there were troubling signs that made it difficult to conclude that its activities were peaceful

The IAEA report said:

The Agency has serious concerns regarding possible military dimensions to Iran’s nuclear programme. After assessing carefully and critically the extensive information available to it, the Agency finds the information to be, overall, credible. The information indicates that Iran has carried out activities relevant to the development of a nuclear explosive device. The information also indicates that prior to the end of 2003, these activities took place under a structured programme, and that some activities may still be ongoing.

Moreover, as we’ve written, Bachmann overstates what Iran has said about using a nuclear weapon to “wipe Israel off the map.”

“If she thinks we live in a dangerous world, she ought to think back when I was drafted in 1962, with the nuclear missiles in Cuba. And Kennedy calls Khrushchev and talks to him and talks him out of this and we don’t have a nuclear exchange.”

— Paul

President Kennedy did not call the Soviet leader. They exchanged letters, and Kennedy famously ignored a belligerent one to respond to an earlier, more conciliatory letter. The “hotline” between the two nations was established after the crisis.

“This is a president, with the spy drone being brought down [in Iran], he says ‘pretty please’? A foreign policy based on ‘pretty please’? You got to be kidding.”

— Romney

Romney appears to be making a rhetorical point, but President Obama did not say “pretty please.” He simply noted at a news conference that the United States had requested the return of the drone through diplomatic channels. He indicated he did not expect to ever receive the drone back.

“We wake up to the reality, Neil, in this country that we have more natural gas than Saudi Arabia has oil, I say, how stupid are we?”

— Jon Huntsman

Our colleagues at PolitiFact recently concluded this standard Huntsman talking point is based on a bogus comparison. Not matter how you measure it, the energy content of U.S. natural gas reserves is much less than the energy content of Saudi oil.

“Venezuela has the largest Iranian embassy in the world there.”

— Rick Perry

This is a dubious statement, especially since Iran has much deeper interests in countries closer to Tehran, such as Iraq and Syria. The extent of Iranian influence in Latin America is often overstated. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton was embarrassed in 2009 when it turned out her claim that Iran was building a mega-embassy in Nicaragua was untrue.

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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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