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Fact-checking the first Democratic debate (night 2)

Democratic 2020 hopefuls made claims on Medicare-for-all, income inequality and Trump's tax cut in both nights of the first Democratic debate. (Video: Meg Kelly, Sarah Cahlan/The Washington Post)

The second round of the first Democratic debate again featured 10 candidates armed with talking points that only occasionally went awry. Here’s a roundup of 14 statements that caught our attention. As is our practice, we do not award Pinocchios during live events.

“I’m meeting people who are working two and three jobs. ... People in America are working. They’re working two and three jobs.”

—Sen. Kamala D. Harris (D-Calif.)

Harris carefully suggests this is anecdotal. That’s because is not borne out in official data.

The number of people who are working two or three jobs is relatively small.

There are more than 162 million people with jobs. But only 325,000 people had two full-time jobs in May, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. Another 4.4 million had both a full-time job and a part-time job, while nearly 2 million were juggling part-time jobs.

In all, there are 7.8 million people who hold more than one job — just 5 percent of Americans with jobs. The percentage has been roughly steady since the Great Recession, and in fact is lower than in the mid-1990s, when it hovered around 6 percent.

“Three people in this country own more wealth than the bottom half of America”

—Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.)

This snappy talking point is based on numbers that add up, but it’s also a question of comparing apples to oranges. Sanders is drawing on a 2017 report from the left-leaning Institute for Policy Studies, which said that three billionaires — Bill Gates, Jeff Bezos (who owns The Washington Post) and Warren Buffett — had total wealth of $248.5 billion, compared to $245 billion for the bottom 160 million of the United States. The wealth of the three men has gone up even more since then.

But people in the bottom half have essentially no wealth, as debts cancel out whatever assets they might have. So the comparison is not especially meaningful. We once gave Sanders Three Pinocchios when he asserted that the six wealthiest people had more wealth than the half of the world’s population. That was an even more problematic comparison, and we said at the time it was better to focus on inequality within a country.

Update: There was some Twitter outrage about our conclusion that the comparison was not especially meaningful. So we checked with Emmanuel Saez, the University of California-Berkeley professor who is the pioneer in this field of research (and often cited by Sanders). He said he agreed with our assessment.

“The real scandal here is that the bottom half of the U.S. families owns essentially no wealth on net, because debts cancel out whatever small assets they may have, on average," he said in an email. "If you exclude cars (consumer durables), the wealth of the bottom 50% is actually slightly negative according to the most recent distributional Fed statistics (2019-Q1). You don’t even need to be a billionaire to actually own more than what the bottom half of Americans own! Billionaires in the Forbes 400 owned slightly less than 1% of total wealth back in 1982, they now own about 3.5% of total wealth (Zucman, 2019, Figure 3). That’s another alarming trend.”

“Well, President Trump, you’re not standing up for working families when you try to throw 32 million people off their health care that they have and that 83 percent of your tax benefits go to the top 1 percent. That’s how we beat Trump: We expose him for the fraud that he is.”


This is misleading. Sanders is referring to the tax cuts that will result by 2027, not under the Trump presidency.

In 2018, most U.S. taxpayers can expect some kind of tax cut, according to just about every analysis. The nonpartisan Tax Policy Center found that initially more than 80 percent of taxpayers would get a tax cut, with less than 5 percent getting a tax increase.

Since the wealthy pay most of the income taxes, they end up with most of the tax cuts. The TPC report shows that in 2018, the top 1 percent would get 20.5 percent of the tax cuts; the top quintile would get 65.3 percent. In other words, that’s not nearly as lopsided as Sanders asserted.

In 2027, the study shows, 82.8 percent of the tax cuts will flow to the top 1 percent. The top quintile actually receives 107.3 percent of the tax changes — because taxes actually increase for the folks in the lowest, second-lowest and middle quintiles.

What happened? The individual tax cuts expire over the course of the decade. Republicans structured the tax cut this way to keep the whole package — especially the corporate tax cut — in a budget box that allowed only for a $1.5 trillion increase in the federal deficit over 10 years.

As for 32 million being thrown off health care, that would only be under scenarios when the Affordable Care Act was repealed with no replacement plan in place — an unlikely scenario. (Sanders could have also been referring to the administration’s support of the lawsuit to invalidate the law entirely, the impact of which is unclear.)

“Except for plastic surgery, everything else is banned under the Medicare-for-all proposal.”

—Sen. Michael F. Bennet (D-Colo.)

Bennet is basically correct. Section 107 of the Sanders Medicare-for-all proposal would make it illegal for any private health insurer to sell coverage that duplicated benefits under the law or for any employer to duplicate the benefits, but would not prohibit the sale of health insurance for benefits not covered under the bill.

But the bill proposes to cover just about everything. Hospital services. Primary and preventive care. Prescription drugs and medical devices. Mental health care. Lab work. Pediatrics. Dentistry. Hearing and vision care. Rehab. Emergency services. Even long-term care.

People on Medicare can buy Medigap insurance, which covers co-payments and deductibles. But the Sanders bill would eliminate the need for that, too, as Section 202 decrees “no cost-sharing.”

The Sanders plan would be more sweeping in its coverage than just about any existing universal health-care system. For instance, Canadians must buy private insurance for prescription drugs, dentists and optometry, while Britain has a parallel private system that about 10 percent of the population participates in.

So that essentially leaves elective procedures such as cosmetic surgery as noted covered by the Sanders plan. Sanders aides have noted that private hospital rooms, institutional long-term care and voluntary care also would not be covered. (Institutional long-term care, such as nursing homes, under the Sanders bill would continue to be covered under Medicaid, the health program for the poor.)

“I wrote the immigration bill in 2013 that created a pathway to citizenship for 11 million people in this country, that had the most progressive Dream Act that’s ever been conceived, much less passed.”


In 2013, Bennet was a member of the “Gang of Eight” in the Senate that crafted the comprehensive immigration reform bill. The package included provisions giving a path to citizenship to “dreamers,” a term for undocumented immigrants who were brought to the United States as young children.

The 2013 bill passed the Senate but died in the House. The Dream Act provisions would have required dreamers to have a “high school diploma or GED, have completed at least two years of college or four years of military service, and have passed an English test and background checks, among other requirements,” according to the American Immigration Council.

But is it the most progressive bill “that’s ever been conceived, much less passed,” as Bennet claimed?

The Democratic-controlled House passed the Dream and Promise Act earlier this month. According to the Migration Policy Institute, it “is an expansive proposal, going beyond Dream Act bills that have been pending in Congress in one form or another since 2001.”

It would expand the legal definition of a dreamer to “unauthorized immigrants, regardless of age, who entered the United States before age 18 and at least four years before enactment of the legislation, and who have a high school diploma or GED, or are enrolled in a high school, GED program, or an apprenticeship program,” according to MPI.

“Forty years of no economic growth for 90 percent of the American people. 160,000 families in top .1 percent have the same wealth as bottom 90 percent. And we’ve got the worst income inequality that we’ve had in 100 years.”


There are different ways to measure this.

The nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office reported the bottom four quintiles saw an average income growth of 32 percent from 1979 to 2015 before transfers and taxes. When including taxes and transfers, the middle three quintiles (21st to 80th percent) saw a 46 percent increase in income. Americans in the lowest quintile saw a 79 percent income increase. Inflation-adjusted wages stagnated for the bottom 60 percent, according to data from the Economic Policy Institute.

The Bennet campaign said he was referring to a 2014 speech by then-Obama economics aide Jason Furman that compared growth in real average income for the bottom 90 percent with median family income. That shows it would have been flat for the bottom 90 percent. (This item has been updated.)

“We automated away 4 million manufacturing jobs due to automation.”

—Businessman Andrew Yang

This is too simplistic. Automation is not the only reason for the loss of manufacturing jobs.

There is varying research on the exact number of jobs lost due to automation. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics research from 2018, there are many reasons that are cited for the decline in manufacturing employment. Among the main culprits: Competition with China; mismatch between the skills that workers have and skills employers need; and decline in cross-regional migration.

“I did not oppose busing in America.”

—Former vice president Joe Biden

Biden did oppose busing, though the issue is a bit complicated.

Biden’s spokesman, Bill Russo, recently told our colleague Matt Viser that the former vice president still believes he was right to oppose busing, and that he did so because he did not believe it was the best way to integrate schools:

“He never thought busing was the best way to integrate schools in Delaware — a position which most people now agree with,” Russo told our colleague. “As he said during those many years of debate, busing would not achieve equal opportunity. And it didn’t.”

As Viser reported, Biden said in a 1975 interview in a Delaware-based publication named People Paper: “I oppose busing. It’s an asinine concept, the utility of which has never been proven to me,” he said. “I’ve gotten to the point where I think our only recourse to eliminate busing may be a constitutional amendment.”

For more, read the full Washington Post article.

“People who have health care under Medicare-for-all will have no premiums, no deductibles, no co-payments, no out-of-pocket expenses. Yes, they will pay more in taxes, but less in health care for what they get.”


We produced an informative video that explains why Sanders cannot really make this claim, unless a whole bunch of things go right:

Democratic presidential hopefuls say Medicare-for-all would be less expensive than the current health-care system. But it's not that straightforward. (Video: Atthar Mirza/The Washington Post)

“Tariffs are taxes. And Americans are going to pay on average $800 more a year, because of these tariffs.”

—South Bend, Ind., Mayor Pete Buttigieg

Buttigieg quotes from a May study by the Federal Reserve Bank of New York, which estimated that because U.S. purchasers of imports from China must pay tariffs imposed by President Trump, the costs will largely be borne by U.S. households. The total annual cost of the new round of tariffs to the typical household would be $831 from the president’s latest round of tariffs. That’s on top of $414 a year from tariffs imposed by Trump in 2018.

“As attorney general of California, I was very proud to put in place a requirement that all my special agents would wear body cameras and keep those cameras on.”


Under Harris, California’s Department of Justice became the first statewide agency in the country to require its police officers to wear body cameras. That requirement did not apply to all local police officers in the state, only those working directly for Harris.

But in 2015, Harris said she did not believe in having statewide standards to regulate the use of body cameras, according to the Sacramento Bee. That stance drew criticism from some advocates. Harris was courting the support of the state’s police unions as she prepared to run for Senate, and those unions opposed the statewide regulations.

“Harris also has stopped short of endorsing statewide regulations on the use of police body cameras, saying that she believes all officers should wear them but that local agencies are best equipped to enact policies,” the Los Angeles Times reported in 2016.

“For the last three years, we’ve been the number one economy in America.”

—John Hickenlooper

We previously awarded Two Pinocchios to Hickenlooper for this claim.

He presided over boom times in Colorado as a two-term governor who left office in January, but he goes into specious territory by describing it as the number one economy from 2016 through 2018. California, Oregon and Washington state outperformed Colorado in gross domestic product growth all three years; Hawaii and North Dakota had lower unemployment rates.

Hickenlooper's campaign told us he was referring to a ranking from U.S. News and World Report.

But there are different rankings out there, their methodologies vary, and Hickenlooper never says this claim comes from a magazine ranking.

That matters because CNBC ranked Colorado’s economy in eighth place among all states last year. WalletHub ranked Colorado’s economy in fifth place. The lesson here is that “number one economy” is in the eye of the beholder when relying on rankings such as these, and Hickenlooper can’t assume audiences will know what he’s referring to.

“In 1988, Rachel, when it wasn’t popular, I ran on a platform of banning assault weapons and in fact lost that race for Congress. I have a D-minus voting record from the NRA. And I believe that what we need is comprehensive gun legislation that, among other things, provides universal background, we end the gun show loophole, we end the straw man provision, and I believed in 1988 and I believe today.”


Sanders likes to talk about his D-minus rating from the NRA, and the NRA’s endorsement of his opponents during his first congressional race in 1988 that may have cost him the election. This was one of Sanders’s repeated claims in the 2016 campaign, so we dug into this deeply then.

Sanders’s recent grade from the NRA was, indeed, a D-minus. Since 1992, the first year the NRA issued a grade for Sanders, he received between a C-minus and F.

Since 1988, Sanders has been consistent on restricting the use of semiautomatic firearms (often called “assault weapons”). The evidence for whether his stance had anything to do with his 1988 loss is mixed. He could have just as easily lost the election because he split votes with a Democrat, as opposed to being the only candidate without an NRA endorsement.

“I got Mitch McConnell to raise taxes $600 billion by raising the top rate.”


Biden is only telling half the story. The 2013 deal did raise individual tax rates, to the tune of $600 billion over 10 years. But, as Bennet pointed out, the 2013 deal also made permanent President George W. Bush’s tax cuts for people making under $250,000, even though Democrats had long campaigned to repeal the tax cuts. The deal added to the federal deficit. Many Democrats at the time thought McConnell outfoxed Biden in the negotiations. Indeed, if the tax cuts had expired as planned under the Bush law, tax revenue would have soared.

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Half True
“I got Mitch McConnell to raise taxes $600 billion by raising the top rate.”
in a Democratic debate
Thursday, June 27, 2019
Share the Facts
Washington Post rating logo Washington Post Rating:
Evidence is mixed
“In 1988, Rachel, when it wasn’t popular, I ran on a platform of banning assault weapons and in fact lost that race for Congress."
in a Democratic debate
Thursday, June 27, 2019
Share the Facts
Washington Post rating logo Washington Post Rating:
Mostly false
“I did not oppose busing in America.”
in a Democratic debate
Thursday, June 27, 2019