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Fact-checking the third-party debate

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“All these presidential and vice-presidential debates, look how constricted these debates have been when you’ve had two parties there — the Republicans and the Democrats.”

— Justice Party presidential candidate Rocky Anderson during third-party debate, Oct. 24, 2012

The Free and Equal Elections Foundation hosted a debate Tuesday for third-party candidates, giving four non-establishment politicians a chance to make their case in front of online viewers and attendees of the event, which was not aired on television. Participants included Rocky Anderson of the Justice Party, Virgil Goode of the Constitution Party, Libertarian Gary Johnson and Jill Stein of the Green Party.

As the remarks above suggest, Anderson argued that the current format for mainstream presidential debates limits voter choices, allows the two major parties to dictate the nature of the political discussion and snuffs out alternative viewpoints.

During Tuesday’s event, which was moderated by former CNN personality Larry King, the candidates expressed their positions on a variety of issues ranging from the electoral system and education to the war on drugs and foreign policy. They largely refraining from attacking each other like President Obama and GOP challenger Mitt Romney, but also showed some of the usual rhetorical tendencies of any politician: exaggeration, mischaracterizations and partial facts lacking context — as well as some straight talk.

Let’s take a look at a few of the claims from these third-party candidates to see how they hold up.

“I am not for public financing. I was not in favor of $100 million for the DNC of taxpayer, $100 million to the RNC of taxpayer money.”

— Virgil Goode

Goode overstated the amount the government actually provides for the conventions. The two parties received about $68 million apiece for their nominating events.

That number breaks down to $18 million apiece to the respective Committee on Arrangements for both Republicans and Democrats to help pay for things such as balloons, confetti, hotel rooms, food and even liquor. An additional $50 million apiece goes toward security for the events, bringing the total for both major parties to $68 million.

It appears that Goode conflated the combined $100 million that the Democrats and Republicans received in 2012 for security with the amount that each party received individually.

For what it’s worth, convention funding from private donors dwarfs the contributions from taxpayers. The Democratic and Republican host committees raised a combined $123 million in 2008 and $142 million in 2004 from donors including corporations and labor unions, according to Bloomberg News.

Furthermore, taxpayers can opt out of contributing to the conventions by simply leaving blank the box that allows them to redirect $3 of their tax payment to the Presidential Election Campaign Fund on their 1040 tax forms. Contributing to this fund, by the way, does not increase an individual or family’s tax liability. (Click on the link above for additional information).

Each $3 donation to the Presidential Election Campaign Fund triggers a matching contribution from the U.S. Treasury, preventing $6 from going toward government programs each time.

Overall, Goode overstated the amount of funding the government provides for political conventions and failed to mention that taxpayers can opt out of contributing to a certain extent.








“Infant mortality rates in the United States are next to the worst in the industrialized world.”

— Rocky Anderson

To the best of our knowledge, Anderson was referring to a report from the Congressional Research Service, which said the U.S. ranks 31st out of 34 nations within the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, which is generally a proxy for “industrialized world.” Only Chile, Mexico and Turkey ranked lower than the U.S. in terms of infant-mortality rate. (See page 5 of the report).

Interestingly, the U.S. ranks higher in health-care spending than some of the nations with lower infant-mortality rates, suggesting that the U.S. is not getting its money’s worth. The CSR report said that “researchers suggest that higher U.S. rates of low birthweight and short gestational age births may explain the relatively high U.S. [infant-mortality rate].”

Technically, this is not quite “next to the worst” but it’s close enough that we can label it a correct statement.






“The biggest threat to our national security is the fact that we’re bankrupt.”

— Gary Johnson

Claims of the federal government going bankrupt are greatly exaggerated, even though the debt held by the public stands at more than $11 trillion, according to the Treasury Department.

The term “bankrupt” generally implies insolvency or an inability to pay debts that are owed. But that’s not the case with the federal government, which has little trouble borrowing funds and can also print money.

The Wall Street Journal pointed out in a June article that “even though the red ink is flowing now at a rate of $1.2 trillion a year, the U.S. Treasury is borrowing at interest rates lower than at any time in at least half a century.”

Much of the government’s ability to borrow money relates to its credit ratings. All of the top rating agencies still show considerable confidence that the federal government can meet its financial obligations.

Moody’s and Fitch have both given the U.S. their highest ratings, for example. And while Standard & Poor’s lowered the U.S. rating during the debt-ceiling debate of summer 2011, the agency has still given the U.S. its second-highest rating (AA+), noting that the federal government has a “very strong capacity to meet its financial commitments.”

Just like one-time GOP presidential aspirant Ron Paul, Johnson earns Four Pinocchios for employing a common scare tactic for budget hawks: using the term “bankrupt” loosely when talking about government finances.





“Here we are now on Iran. The largest demonstration in the world in support of the United States after 9-11 was in Iran, by over 1 million citizens that showed up in support of the United States. And we’re going to bomb Iran? We’re going to bomb the citizens of Iran?”

— Gary Johnson

We have not found a media reference to “over 1 million citizens” of Iran showing up in support of the United States after 9-11, and the Johnson campaign did not provide us with an example of one. So it appears the Libertarian candidate might have used a bit of hyperbole in talking about “the largest demonstration in the world” to express sympathy for the 2001 terrorist attacks.

Nonetheless, some showings of support from Iranian citizens were documented. A BBC report from around that time said “vast crowds” participated in candlelight vigils in Tehran to show respect for 9-11 victims. Also, an AP report from Sept. 14, 2001, said that “antipathy toward the United States was set aside as 60,000 spectators and players observed a minute of silence at the Tehran soccer stadium before a World Cup qualifying match.”

Still, news accounts from the time also suggested that Iranian hardliners praised the attacks on the U.S. Additionally, Iranians took to the streets to protest the U.S. when American forces launched an offensive to route the Taliban in Afghanistan. An Oct. 13, 2001, article in the Houston Chronicle reported that “more than 20,000 people streamed through Tehran, Iran, Friday in the country’s largest anti-Western demonstration since airstrikes on Afghanistan began.”

The Iranian reaction to 9/11 was obviously more complicated than Johnson let on. Setting that aside, let’s address the Libertarian’s suggestion that the U.S. is going to bomb Iran.

Debate moderator Larry King said in response to Johnson’s insinuation, “I think both [major-party] candidates said they would not bomb Iran.” King is onto something, although neither Romney nor Obama has said they would rule out air strikes to stop Iran’s nuclear ambitions.

In a nutshell, both the president and his Republican opponent have said a nuclear-armed Iran is unacceptable, both have suggested that they will apply or continue to apply diplomatic pressure to halt the Islamic republic’s nuclear ambitions, and both have said they will consider military options if that’s what it takes to stop the Middle East nation from acquiring such a weapon. But neither candidate has said that bombing the country is the only option they are considering.

Johnson vastly oversimplified the positions of Romney and Obama toward Iran. He earns Three Pinocchios.





“In fact, there are 90 million voters who are not coming out to vote in this election. ... Those are voters who are saying ‘no’ to politics as usual and saying ‘no’ to the Democratic and Republican parties. Imagine if we got out word to those 90 million voters that they actually have a variety of choices and voices in this election.”

— Jill Stein

Stein made these comments during her closing remarks, saying 90 million eligible voters will not cast a ballot in the 2012 election because they don’t like their options in the race — essentially arguing for more recognition of third-party candidates. The Green Party candidate seems to have based her claim on a USA Today/Suffolk University poll of eligible voters who are unlikely to cast a ballot in the upcoming election.

Stein cannot predict the future, so she can’t possibly know “in fact” that 90 million people won’t vote. She is merely assuming that about 40 percent of eligible voters will not participate in the 2012 election, which is the rough non-participation rate from 2008 and 2004. At the end of the day, Stein is relying on an educated guess, but anything could happen in the coming week or so.

Beyond that, the poll doesn’t necessarily support Stein’s claim about the reason for likely non-participation. According to USA Today, “the top reason given by unregistered voters for not having signed up is their busy lives.” Some indicated that they aren’t excited about either candidate or that nothing ever gets done, which supports Stein’s assertion about lack of choices driving low participation. But that certainly doesn’t account for all 90 million people who are unlikely to vote.

Stein also doesn’t account for the likelihood that third-party candidates would split those 90 million votes any number of ways, meaning the major-party candidates would still hold an advantage.

We’re not downplaying the importance of a high voter turnout here, but instead challenging Stein’s educated assumption and her oversimplification of polling results, which together warrant One Pinocchio.








“I think it’s time to make public higher education free, as it should be. We’ve done this before, when our troops came home from the Second World War. We provided free higher education through the G.I. Bill.”

— Jill Stein

Contrary to what Stein said, the G.I. Bill, signed by President Franklin D. Roosevelt on June 22, 1944, did not provide free higher education. A signing statement from the president said the bill would give “servicemen and women the opportunity of resuming their education or technical training after discharge, or of taking a refresher or retraining course, not only without tuition charge up to $500 per school year, but with the right to receive a monthly living allowance while pursuing their studies.”

This suggests veterans would have $500 per school year to help pay for their studies, but not that the bill guaranteed a free education for returning service members. Today, the G.I. Bill provides $1,473 per month for full-time students, but it still does not guarantee free tuition.







“They [Romney and Obama] are both trying to outdo each other in terms of who’s going to drill more both offshore and on public lands.”
— Rocky Anderson

Anderson criticized Romney and Obama for trying to outdo each other on the issue of drilling for fossil fuels, an area the Justice Party politician seems to want to de-emphasize. Let’s review what the two major-party candidates have said.

During the first presidential debate, Romney vowed to “get the oil from offshore and Alaska” if he wins the election. He followed up on this in the second debate by saying: “I will fight to create more energy in this country, to get America energy secure. And part of that is bringing in a pipeline of oil from Canada, taking advantage of the oil and coal we have here, drilling offshore in Alaska, drilling offshore in Virginia where the people want it.”

Obama did not mention offshore drilling during any of the presidential debates. However, he addressed Romney’s comments during the second event by saying: “I’m all for pipelines. I’m all for oil production. What I’m not for is us ignoring the other half of the equation.”

Note that the president emphasized his support for renewable energy — “the other half of the equation” — and did not promise to drill more than his opponent, contrary to what Anderson suggested. Instead, the president simply implied that he has nothing against drilling and oil production.

During the second debate, Romney made the point that oil and gas production on federal land has dropped since 2010 by 14 percent and 9 percent, respectively. Obama responded by saying: “Our production is going up, and we’re using oil more efficiently. And very little of what Governor Romney just said is true. We’ve opened up public lands. We’re actually drilling more on public lands than in the previous administration.”

In this case as well, the president is merely noting what has been done already, not what he plans to do. We should note that both candidates were correct about their claims.

The takeaway here is that only one candidate, Romney, indicated that he would increase oil and gas production offshore and on public lands. Anderson mischaracterized the exchanges between the two major-party candidates by saying Obama tried to outdo his opponent. The president has defended his record on oil and gas production but did not promise to drill more than the GOP challenger.

 




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