Facts took a holiday in last night's final presidential debate, with both President Bush and Sen. John F. Kerry attacking each other with misleading or out-of-context assertions that revealed the deep philosophical divide between the candidates.
Kerry charged that the top 1 percent of income-earners in the United States got $89 billion of Bush's tax cut last year, while Bush asserted that most of the tax cut went to low- and middle-income Americans, "and now the tax code is more fair."
Kerry's statement was correct but was out of context, while Bush was stretching the truth. Put another way, the top 1 percent got about 34 percent of the tax cut -- and they pay about 35 percent of individual income taxes. The bottom 80 percent pay 14 percent of federal income taxes but got 32 percent of Bush's tax cut. (The top 1 percent pays 24 percent of all federal taxes, including payroll taxes, while the bottom 80 percent pays 29 percent of all federal taxes.)
Taxes for all income groups have decreased, although the share of taxes paid has gone up by a minuscule amount for "middle class" taxpayers in the 40 percent to 80 percent of income groups, according to the Congressional Budget Office.
In a series of dueling statistics, the two men tussled over Pell Grants, which assist college students, proving that each side can find the numbers for putting the best gloss on their case. Kerry said that "they've cut the Pell Grants . . . they're not getting the $5,100 the president promised them." Bush countered: "He said we cut Pell grants. We've increased Pell grants by a million students."
In the 2000 campaign, Bush promised a maximum grant of $5,100 for each freshman. When Bush released his budget in February, it capped the maximum Pell Grant award to $4,050 for the third year in a row, and the American Association of Community Colleges called it a freeze that would be "a severe blow" to students from low-income families at a time of declining state and local support for public higher education. The White House has argued that the program has a $3.7 billion shortfall, and that raising the maximum award while making the shortfall worse would be irresponsible.
Since 2001, the number of Pell Grant recipients has risen by 1 million, in part -- as Kerry pointed out -- because the program is based on eligibility according to a formula, and low incomes can raise the number of students eligible.
Kerry charged that Bush has underfunded the No Child Left Behind Act by $28 billion. His assertion is based on the fact that funding has not reached the level authorized by the legislation -- not uncommon for many bills -- but he neglected to say that funding for the Education Department has increased about 60 percent during Bush's tenure. (Bush appeared to understate the increase, saying it is 49 percent.)
Kerry made two charges -- that Bush had once said he was "not that concerned" about finding Osama bin Laden and that he had never met with the Congressional Black Caucus. He slightly misfired on one.
Bush said the bin Laden comment was "one of those exaggerations," but in a news conference on March 13, 2002, Bush said when asked about the search for the al Qaeda leader: "So I don't know where he is. You know, I just don't spend that much time on him, we haven't heard much from him. . . . And I wouldn't necessarily say he's at the center of any command structure. And, again, I don't know where he is. I -- I'll repeat what I said. I truly am not that concerned about him."
Bush did meet with the Congressional Black Caucus during his first two weeks in office -- on Jan. 31, 2001 -- but Kerry's overall charge was correct: Bush has repeatedly turned down requests to meet with the group since then. Caucus members have complained that not only has Bush refused to meet with them on specific issues, including his plans to attack Iraq, but also the White House often has not even responded to their letters. Bush dropped by a meeting that national security adviser Condoleezza Rice had with the caucus earlier this year.
Kerry misspoke when he said that the minimum wage, now $5.15 an hour, is "the lowest minimum wage value it has been in our nation in 50 years." The inflation-adjusted low since 1955 was reached in 1989, when it dipped below $5.00 in inflation-adjusted dollars. But the minimum wage generally has been higher than $5.15 in adjusted dollars, and relative to the average hourly wage, it is at its lowest level since 1948.
Kerry misleadingly suggested that his health care plan would provide health care for "all Americans." Most analysts believe the plan would, at best, reduce the 45 million uninsured in half.
Bush recycled his charge that Kerry voted 98 times to raise taxes. But FactCheck.org, a nonpartisan group, says nearly half were not for tax increases per se, and many others were on procedural motions. The Bush total also includes several votes on a single tax bill. Bush misspoke when he said Kerry voted against the Homeland Security bill; the senator supported it on final passage.
Both Kerry and Bush oversimplified the employment picture, with Kerry asserting that the number of jobs has fallen by 1.6 million and with Bush saying that the number of jobs has increased by 1.9 million in the past 13 months.
Kerry failed to note that he was talking about private-sector jobs, while Bush was referring to only a brief window of time. The latest job figures released by the Bureau of Labor Statistics last week showed that 96,000 jobs were added in September, fewer than the 145,000 predicted by economists, for a net loss of 821,000 during Bush's tenure.
Bush is on track to be the first president in 72 years to preside over a loss of jobs, though an unexpected upsurge could erase that dubious honor by January. In its February 2002 report, published well after the economic impact of Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, the Council of Economic Advisers predicted that Bush's economic policies would generate 7 million new jobs.
Kerry's claim that Bush tried to cut 500,000 children from after-school programs is accurate: Bush's 2004 budget cut funding for after-school programs from $1 billion to $600 million
While Bush blamed the recession and war for the reappearance of the deficit, this is a rewriting of economic history. Shortly after Bush took office, the White House estimated a $5.6 trillion surplus over the next decade, even as many economists were warning that the economy was wobbly and the stock market was in a swoon from the decline in technology stocks. The Congressional Budget Office has estimated that spending on the war on terrorism and homeland security is responsible for only a small portion of the overall reversal of the deficit, while Bush's tax cuts account for much of the reduction resulting from policy initiatives.
Bush, making his case that Kerry is a tax-and-spend liberal, charged that he has promised more than $2.2 trillion in new spending over the next 10 years. Kerry has disputed that estimate, and Bush's own tax-cut proposals and plan to create private Social Security accounts -- and his spending proposals -- would add more than $3 trillion to the deficit, according to administration figures.
However, Kerry misspoke when he cited a Washington Post article on the issue, adding the figure of $3 trillion on top of the transition costs for private Social Security accounts.
Staff writer Ceci Connelly contributed to this report.