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A Project of The Annenberg Public Policy Center

Fibs and Flubs at Democratic Debate

Straining the facts at Iowa's debate on Sunday Jan. 4.


Dean kept understating the size of the tax cut he wants to repeal and glossed over his political motivation for sealing records from his terms as governor. Kucinich misled with a claim that a steelworker pays as high a tax rate as someone making $400,000 a year. And Gephardt said he’d gladly support a ban on donations from lobbyists, without mentioning the millions he has received from interest groups.



Tax Fibs

Dean once again understated the value of the Bush tax cuts that he has promised to repeal:

Dean: Well, we’ve got to look at the big picture. If you make over $1 million, you’ve got a $112,000 tax cut. Sixty percent of us got a $304 tax cut .

Actually, as we’ve said before, half of all US households got more than $470 according to the Tax Policy Center. Dean arrives at his figure by averaging in the cuts received by the bottom 60% of households, which includes all those who paid no taxes in the first place and thus got no cut. But as we’ve pointed out before, that’s just as misleading as averaging in the cuts received by the top 60%, which produces a figure of  $1,948. By Dean’s logic, President Bush could claim that 60 percent of us got nearly $2,000 and he’d be just as correct as Dean. Which is to say, not very. (All these figures — Dean’s and ours — are calculated from a table  posted by the nonpartisan Tax Policy Center.)

Dean wasn’t alone: Kucinich gave a distorted picture of who bears the tax burden:

Kucinich: Well, you know, when you consider that a steelworker who’s making $40,000 a year has virtually the same tax burden as someone who’s making $400,000 a year, you see that there are inequities.

But that’s generally untrue even after the two Bush tax cuts, as can be seen in this table:

Average Effective Tax Rates 2003

(Combined Federal Income, Social Security and Medicare Taxes)

Income (thousands) Rate
Less than 10 3.0
10-20 7.0
20-30 13.7
30-40 17.6
40-50 18.8
50-75 20.1
75-100 21.4
100-200 23.7
200-500 26.7
500-1,000 28.7
More than 1,000 27.4
Source: Tax Policy Center Table 2

Even counting Social Security and Medicare taxes along with federal income taxes, households with between $40,000 and $50,000 in income pay an average, combined tax rate just under 19%, much less than the nearly 27% rate paid by those whose income falls between $200,000 and $500,000 a year, according to figures published by the nonpartisan Tax Policy Center.

It is true that a rich person who gets most or all their income from stock dividends and capital gains, and little or nothing from salary or other sources, would pay a lower tax rate than the sort of working person Kucinich mentioned. That’s because the tax bill signed last year cuts the rate on dividend and capital gains income to 15%. However, such examples of the idle rich are not the rule and it’s incorrect to imply otherwise.

(Note: The Dean campaign sent us an objection to this article on Jan. 13, the full text of which is posted here)

Dean’s Papers

Dean said he was protecting the privacy of homosexuals and others by refusing to release immediately all his papers as governor of Vermont .

Dean: I think if somebody is gay and they write me that, and they don’t care to have that information disclosed to the public, that’s their right.

What Dean failed to mention was that the sealing of his records was also motivated by a desire to protect himself. “We didn’t want anything embarrassing appearing in the papers at a critical time in any future endeavor,” he told statehouse reporters last year at the time of the sealing, according to The New York Times and The Boston Globe. And although aides later said Dean was joking, Dean’s lawyer David M. Rocchio was quoted by the Times  as saying that an “extra argument” for sealing the records is that “People who are in competition with him right now will look for ways to distort him based on his record.”


Dean argued that the US is less safe as a result of the Iraq invasion, but got it wrong when he said military jets were escorting airlines “for the first time.”

Dean: But the fact is, since Saddam Hussein has been caught, we’ve lost 23 additional troops; we now have, for the first time, American fighter jets escorting commercial airliners through American airspace.

Actually, scrambling fighter jets to intercept and escort airliners has been fairly common ever since  Sept. 11, 2001 . T he North American Aerospace Defense Command has scrambled more than 1,600 such missions since the attacks on the World Trade Center and Pentagon more than two years ago, according to a news report by the French news agency. “Sometimes they’re scrambled because someone has violated a restricted airspace, sometimes they’re scrambled because an airliner will squawk an emergency frec (frequency) and so we have to go and respond to that and there are other situations we can’t discuss,” the article quoted NORAD spokesman, Lieutenant Colonel Robert Garza.


Gephardt again dragged up a misleading figure from 1995 claiming Dean was in league with Republicans trying to cut Medicare by $270 billion.

Gephardt: The Republicans tried to cut Medicare by $270 billion. And Bill Clinton and the Democrats fought them off . . . At that time, you were head of the governors’ association, and you agreed with their proposal.

Dean did speak approvingly back then of a Republican proposal in the Senate that would have reined in Medicare spending growth by $270 billion over seven years. But if slowing the growth of spending is a “cut” then the Democrats were proposing one, too. The Clinton administration was proposing to slow Medicare spending by $124 billion over the same period.


Gephardt happily agreed with Edwards to support a ban on political donations from lobbyists, but made no mention of his own heavy reliance on special-interest money.

Edwards: So you would agree with my proposal to ban contributions from lobbyists? Were you saying yes to that? You’re for that?

Gephardt: Yes.

Edwards: OK.

Gephardt: . . . I’m with you.

But according to a tabulation by the Center on Responsive Politics, Gephardt’s various campaigns have received $8 million from political action committee’s since 1989 — amounting to one dollar of every five he has raised. Counting both PAC money and donations from individuals, Gephardt got $4.4 million from lawyers and lobbyists during that period, making that industry his biggest supporter by far. In second place is the beer, wine and liquor industry at $1.3 million, and in third is the real-estate industry at $1.2 million.

To be sure, it isn’t necessarily inconsistent to take lobbyists’ money while advocating a ban. In fact, Edwards himself is heavily funded by fellow trial lawyers even though he turns away money from registered lobbyists. But we thought you would like to know.


Carol Moseley Braun set a new standard of exaggeration in castigating President Bush’s handling of the economy:

Moseley Braun: The worst president on the economy, in terms of jobs, 6 million jobs lost.

Actually, the economy hasn’t lost anything close to 6 million jobs. As of the latest figures released last month, the economy had 2.3 million fewer total jobs in November than when Bush took office. Even at the worst of the job slump last July, the job loss was just 2.7 million.


Supporting Documents

View Dean campaign’s objection to our criticism of his $304 figure


Robin Toner, “Dean Struggles With a Stance Over Medicare” The New York Times 1 Oct. 2003.

Brooks Jackson, “Truth Was an Occasional Casualty In Sunday’s Debate” CNN 7 Oct. 1996.

Justin Cole “US government defends flight clampdowns, jet fighter escorts” Agence France Presse 3 Jan. 2003.

Rick Lyman “Presidential Campaign Was Cited During Talks to Seal Dean’s Papers as Governor” The New York Times 27 Dec. 2003: A12.

Sarah Schweitzer “The 2004 Campaign/Official Files; Dean Feared a ‘Horton’ Scenario” The Boston Globe 9 Oct. 2003: A40.

Center for Responsive Politics Web site: Summaries of Gephardt donations by PACS and by Industry.