FactCheck.org reviews GOP debate

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Third Time 'Round for GOP Hopefuls
June 8, 2007

Debating once again, Republican candidates miscast some facts and get others flat wrong.


Pollsters will inform us whether the third time was the charm for any of these candidates in the eyes of potential voters. All we can do is remind you not to believe everything you hear.

Former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney committed the biggest factual fouls of the night, misleadingly asserting:

That we went to war in Iraq because Saddam Hussein refused to allow weapons inspectors to come in
That there's an ocean of difference between his Massachusetts health plan and those "government takeover" plans of "every Democrat" running for president and

That Russia's income from oil exports is vastly larger than it actually is.

Other candidates committed factual trespass, too. Sen. John McCain of Arizona ignored the waste disposal issue when he praised nuclear power for being green, for instance, and Kansas Sen. Sam Brownback exaggerated the number of illegal immigrants living in the United States.


The June 5 debate at Saint Anselm College in Manchester, N.H., brought the 10 Republican presidential aspirants together once again, two days after a Democratic debate at the same site. Both were sponsored by CNN, WMUR-TV and Manchester's Union Leader.

Health Plan Hoodoo

Former Massachusetts Gov. Romney tried to distance his state's universal health insurance plan from the proposals of the Democratic presidential candidates.

Romney: Every Democrat up there's talking about a form of socialized medicine, government takeover, massive tax increase.... I'm the guy who actually tackled this issue. We get all of our citizens insured. We get people that were uninsured with private health insurance. We have to stand up and say the market works. Personal responsibility works.

There are two problems with Romney's characterization: One, Ohio Rep. Dennis Kucinich is the only Democratic candidate to propose a single-payer, wholly government-funded health care plan. And two, Romney's Massachusetts universal insurance system bears a striking resemblance to the health care proposals of the Democratic front-runners.

We first took a look at the Romney-backed health insurance plan after the May 3 Republican presidential debate, when the candidate said it was not a government takeover and juxtaposed his plan with "HillaryCare." We pointed out that while the plan is not government-administered health insurance, it includes government mandates and subsidies, minimum coverage requirements and fines for noncompliance. The Massachusetts plan is clearly not a complete government takeover; it builds on the private insurance industry – as do the proposals of Sen. Barack Obama and former Sen. John Edwards, and the health care initiative spearheaded by Hillary Clinton in the early '90s.

Kenneth E. Thorpe, a professor of health policy at Emory University, has analyzed the costs of the Edwards and Obama plans. In reading those and the Massachusetts plans, the similarities are clear, and Thorpe says the Obama and Romney plans are "virtually identical." Both call for an insurance exchange (an entity that would offer various private insurance plans to the public), and they offer financial assistance to low-income people. Edwards' proposal differs in that he uses health care plans in the federal employee program, rather than a national exchange. "That's an implementation difference," says Thorpe. "The real important part of it, they're both building on the private insurance industry."

Sen. Clinton has not released a formal proposal, but when she does, it's highly unlikely to be a wholly government funded proposal.

Politicians will debate how much government involvement in health insurance regulation is acceptable and how much is stepping on the toes of private insurance companies. But in our view, the term  "government takeover" could only be applied to Rep. Kucinich's proposal. Former Alaska Sen. Mike Gravel calls for a federal voucher program, but Kucinich, in fact, brags on his Web site that he's the only candidate advocating a universal not-for-profit health care system.

Is Nuclear Waste Good for the Environment?

Sen. John McCain would have us believe that nuclear power is good for the environment because nuclear power plants do not emit greenhouse gases.

McCain: Nuclear power is safe, nuclear power is green — does not green — emit greenhouse gases.

McCain is correct to say that nuclear power does not emit greenhouse gases; in that respect, it is far more environmentally friendly than fossil fuel power plants. McCain neglects to mention, however, that nuclear power poses a different set of environmental worries. According to the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, high-level nuclear waste – the sort produced as a byproduct of nuclear power generation – is potentially quite harmful.

NRC: Standing near unshielded spent fuel could be fatal due to the high radiation levels. Ten years after removal of spent fuel from a reactor, the radiation dose 1 meter away from a typical spent fuel assembly exceeds 20,000 rems per hour. A dose of 5,000 rems would be expected to cause immediate incapacitation and death within one week.

While some of the isotopes in spent nuclear fuel decay within days, others have half-lives (or the time that it takes for half of the radiation to cease) of as long as 24,000 years. At present, high-level nuclear waste is mostly stored in pools at nuclear power plants, a temporary solution. Fights have raged for years about the location of a permanent nuclear waste repository, but the NRC plans to open one in 2017 under Yucca Mountain in Nevada.  

Russia's Oil Riches

Romney claimed that Russia earned $500 billion dollars in oil revenue, but the U.S. Energy Information Administration findings differ.

Romney: But let's not forget, where the money is being made this year is not just throughout these years is not just in Exxon and Shell and the major oil companies, it's in the countries that own this oil. Russia last year took in $500 billion by selling oil.

Leon Aron of the American Enterprise Institute wrote in the May 15 Wall Street Journal, "Every day more than 19,000 barrels of oil flow through the pipeline for sale abroad, bringing $500 billion a year" to Russia. But a correction to his piece was issued four days later:

WSJ: The estimated annual fair market value of all oil and gas extracted in Russia is $500 billion. This figure was mistakenly identified as the annual value of oil exports.

That's oil and gas (not just oil) and extracted (not just exported). According to the EIA, Russia took in $141 billion in net energy exports for 2006. Russia is second only to Saudi Arabia as the largest net exporter of oil in the world.

As a point of reference, the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries, which includes 12 of the world's largest oil exporting nations (Russia is not a member), made a net $522 billion in 2006, according to the EIA.

Romney Rewrites History

Romney tried to pin the blame for the Iraq war on Saddam Hussein's refusal to allow weapons inspections.

Romney: f you're saying let's turn back the clock, and Saddam Hussein had opened up his country to IAEA inspectors, and they'd come in and they'd found that there were no weapons of mass destruction, had Saddam Hussein, therefore, not violated United Nations resolutions, we wouldn't be in the conflict we're in. But he didn't do those things, and we knew what we knew at the point we made the decision to get in.

Romney is not alone in playing loose with the facts about weapons inspections. On at least three occasions, President Bush has made the same claim. The first, on July 14, 2003:

Bush: The larger point is, and the fundamental question is, did Saddam Hussein have a weapons program? And the answer is, absolutely. And we gave him a chance to allow the inspectors in, and he wouldn't let them in. And, therefore, after a reasonable request, we decided to remove him from power, along with other nations, so as to make sure he was not a threat to the United States and our friends and allies in the region.

A few months later, Bush reiterated the claim. And on the third anniversary of the war, he said:

Bush: [W]e worked with the world, we worked to make sure that Saddam Hussein heard the message of the world. And when he chose to deny inspectors, when he chose not to disclose, then I had the difficult decision to make to remove him. And we did, and the world is safer for it.

That the U.N.'s International Atomic Energy Agency was not permitted to make inspections might come as a bit of a surprise to Mohamed ElBaradei, head of the IAEA, who reported on March 17, 2003, that "late last night...I was advised by the United States government to pull out our inspectors from Baghdad." Inspectors had been in Iraq since November 2002. They remained until U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan ordered their evacuation on March 17, 2003, just three days before U.S. and British troops invaded Iraq.

Language Barrier

Colorado Rep. Tom Tancredo claimed John McCain wasn't being straightforward regarding his support for making English the official language of the US.

Tancredo: And even in the bill that Senator McCain is pushing, he says that he supports English-only – or official English. Doesn't go on to tell you, that of course he says that we're going to codify President Clinton's original plan, original executive order signed that said all papers produced by the government have to be in various languages.

Tancredo isn't telling the whole story. It is true that in 2000, President Clinton issued Executive Order 13166, which required that government agencies issue certain documents in multiple languages. But that order didn't require "all papers" produced by the government to be in languages other than English, as Tancredo says; it only applied to documents that outline federal assistance services:

Executive Order 13166: To this end, each Federal agency shall examine the services it provides and develop and implement a system by which [limited English proficiency] persons can meaningfully access those services consistent with, and without unduly burdening, the fundamental mission of the agency.

The service would aid citizens who, under Title 6 of the Civil Rights Act, cannot be denied federal assistance services based on their level of English proficiency. The McCain-Kennedy Immigration bill (S. 1033) would not have rescinded  Clinton's order, and it would have require some other documents to be issued in different languages. Specifically, it would require labor contractors to provide information such as compensation, period of employment and labor organizing opportunities to employees in a language they can clearly understand.

S. 1033 Sec. 304(i)(3): The information required to be disclosed...shall be provided in writing in English or, as necessary and reasonable, in the language of the worker being recruited. The Department of Labor shall make forms available in English, Spanish, and other languages, as necessary, which may be used in providing workers with information required under this section.

An Illegal Overestimate

Sen. Sam Brownback exaggerated the number of unauthorized immigrants living in the U.S. in the past and present.

Brownback: We did the first immigration bill I was involved in then, in 1996. You know what, that was [an] enforcement-only bill in 1996, and we had 7 million undocumented in the country then. We're at 12 [million] to 20 million now.

The Immigration and Naturalization Service estimated that in 1996 there were 5.6 million unauthorized immigrants living in the United States. The 7 million figure Brownback referenced was the estimate for 2000.

His range for the current number of unauthorized immigrants is off as well. The Pew Hispanic Center put the figure at 11.5 million to 12 million in 2006, and the Department of Homeland Security estimated the total to be 10.5 million in 2005. DHS recognizes that there is no definitive figure, because "there are no national surveys, administrative data, or other sources of information that directly provide accurate estimates of this population. As a consequence, the unauthorized immigrant population must be estimated by making certain assumptions and by combining data that measure events with those that measure populations." However, that doesn't mean 20 million is a legitimate estimate. That figure can be traced to a 2005 report by Bear Stearns, an investment firm, which said the number "may be as high as 20 million people" but bases that on anecdotal evidence and extrapolating "micro trends at the community level."

While we're on the subject, Romney made an overly broad statement about the Senate's recently stalled immigration plan, saying, "it allows people who've come here illegally to stay here for the rest of their lives." That's misleading. Romney ignores some significant hurdles illegal aliens must clear to qualify.

The Senate plan, which was endorsed by the Bush Administration, would have created a new legal status, the so-called "Z" visa, for which illegal aliens could apply. However, only a certain number of these visas would be available every year. Also, applicants would have to prove they're employed and verify that they have been in the country since January 1, 2007. They then would have to pay fines and fees up to $5,000 and an additional $4,000 when they applied for full U.S. citizenship —  assuming they met the requisite language and civics requirements. And any formerly illegal aliens trying to become full citizens would still have to wait for the current backlog of applicants to clear.

Finally, former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee doesn't get off scot-free — he wrongly stated that the night of the debate was President Ronald Reagan's birthday, when actually it was the anniversary of his death in 2004.

The next debate, between the Democratic candidates, is scheduled for June 28 at Washington, D.C.'s Howard University.

- by Viveca Novak, with Justin Bank, Jessica Henig, Emi Kolawole, Joe Miller, Lori Robertson, Stephen Simas, Carolyn Auwaerter and Allie Berkson

Correction, June 8: In the Analysis portion of our story we stated that Russia was second only to Saudi Arabia as the largest oil importer in the world.  In fact it is the second largest exporter.  

"Don't drink and drive; you might spill it."--J. Eugene Baker, aka my late father.