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A Project of The Annenberg Public Policy Center

New And Recycled Distortions At Final Presidential Debate

Bush claims most of his tax cuts went to low- and middle-income persons. Kerry says Pell Grants were cut. Don't believe either.


The debates are over and the results are clear: both candidates are incorrigible fact-twisters.

Bush said most of his tax cuts went to “low- and middle-income Americans” when independent calculations show most went to the richest 10 percent. Kerry claims Bush “cut the Pell Grants” when they’ve actually increased. Both men repeated misstatements made in earlier debates, and added a few new ones.


Wrong on Tax Cuts

Who Got Tax Cuts?

Bush: He talks about middle-class tax cuts. That’s exactly where the tax cuts went. Most of the tax cuts went to low- and middle-income Americans. And now the tax code is more fair. Twenty percent of the upper-income people pay about 80 percent of the taxes in America today because of how we structured the tax cuts.

Bush could hardly have been farther off base when he said most of his tax cuts “went to low- and middle-income Americans.” That’s just not true.

In fact, the nonpartisan Tax Policy Center recently calculated that most of the tax cuts — 53% to be exact — went to the highest -earning 10% of US individuals and families. Those most affluent Americans got an average tax cut of $7,661.

And as for the “low- and middle-income Americans” Bush mentioned — the bottom 60% of individuals and families got only 13.7% of the tax cuts, according to the Tax Policy Center, a far cry from “most” of the cuts as claimed by Bush.

The President came closer to the mark, but still got it wrong, when he said in the same breath that the top 20% of earners pay “about 80% of the taxes in America today.” That’s incorrect.

In fact, as we reported only that morning, the Congressional Budget Office calculates that the top 20% now pay 63.5% of the total federal tax burden, which includes income taxes, payroll taxes and other federal levies. It’s true that the top 20% pays nearly 81% of all federal income taxes, but the president spoke more expansively of “taxes in America,” not just income taxes.

Wrong on Pell Grants

Pell Grants

Kerry: They’ve cut the Pell Grants . . .

Bush: He said we cut Pell Grants. We’ve increased Pell Grants by a million students. That’s a fact.

Kerry: But you know why the Pell Grants have gone up in their numbers? Because more people qualify for them because they don’t have money.

But they’re not getting the $5,100 the president promised them. They’re getting less money.

Kerry claimed the Bush administration had cut Pell Grants for low-income students to attend college. Bush said Pell Grants have been increased by a million students. Bush was correct.

Department of Education figures show the number of Pell Grants awarded the year before Bush took office was 3.9 million. The number grew to 5.1 million for the most recent academic year — an increase of 1.3 million, actually.

Spending for Pell Grants grew from just under $8 billion in the academic year that was underway when Bush took office to nearly $12.7 billion three years later, a jump of nearly 60%. That’s some “cut.”

It is true that during the 2000 presidential campaign Bush promised to increase the maximum size of Pell Grants to $5,100 for first-year students, a promise that remains unfulfilled. The maximum grant has risen from $3,300 at the time Bush made that promise, but only to $4,050. Under Bush’s proposed 2005 budget the maximum grant would remain frozen there for most students for the third year in a row.

In April Bush proposed an increase of as much as $1,000 in the maximum award, but only for those students who prepare for college with demanding courses in high school, which would allow only a small fraction of Pell Grant recipients to qualify for the maximum. So Kerry was correct when he said students are “not getting the $5,100 the president promised them.”

Wrong on After-School Programs

Kerry claimed that “500,000 kids lost after-school programs,” which isn’t the case. A cut was proposed but Congress rejected it. The Department of Education’s 2004 budget proposal called for a nearly 40% cut in funding for the 21st Century Community Learning Centers program, or a drop of nearly $400 million from about $1 billion in 2003. According to a report by the Afterschool Alliance, “More than 550,000 children would lose access to afterschool programs.” But even assuming that projection would have turned out to be correct, it never happened because Congress kept funding at about $1 billion.

Wrong on Osama

Bush stumbled when he denied making some remarks about Osama bin Laden that Kerry had accurately paraphrased. Bush accused Kerry of “one of those exaggerations.”

Not That Concerned?

Kerry: Six months after he said Osama bin Laden must be caught dead or alive, this president was asked, “Where is Osama bin Laden?” He said, “I don’t know. I don’t really think about him very much. I’m not that concerned.”

Bush: Gosh, I just don’t think I ever said I’m not worried about Osama bin Laden. It’s kind of one of those exaggerations.

Of course we’re worried about Osama bin Laden. We’re on the hunt after Osama bin Laden. We’re using every asset at our disposal to get Osama bin Laden.

In fact, Bush said almost exactly what Kerry quoted him as saying. It was in a news conference at the White House on March 13, 2002, after US forces had overturned the Taliban regime in Afghanistan:

Q (March 13, 2002): Mr. President, in your speeches now you rarely talk or mention Osama bin Laden. Why is that? . . .

Bush: So I don’t know where he is. You know, I just don’t spend that much time on him, Kelly, to be honest with you. . . .

Q:  But don’t you believe that the threat that bin Laden posed won’t truly be eliminated until he is found either dead or alive?

Bush: Well, as I say, 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. I know he is on the run. I was concerned about him, when he had taken over a country. I was concerned about the fact that he was basically running Afghanistan and calling the shots for the Taliban.

Wrong on Flu Vaccine

Who Blocked Vaccine?

Bush: Bob, we relied upon a company out of England to provide about half of the flu vaccines for the United States (sic) citizen, and it turned out that the vaccine they were producing was contaminated. And so we took the right action and didn’t allow contaminated medicine into our country.

It’s not true, as Bush claimed, that “we took the right action” in blocking “contaminated” influenza vaccine from entering the US.

Actually, it was the British and not the US that blocked shipment. The British Medicines and Healthcare products Regulatory Agency, according to an Oct. 6 news release, suspended the license of Chiron Corp., the manufacturer of approximately 50% of the U.S. supply.

In fact, the Bush administration seems to have been caught by surprise when Chiron Corp. notified the US Center for Disease Control Oct. 5 that the company wouldn’t be shipping the vaccine due to the British action. The US Food and Drug Administration didn’t begin an investigation until five days later, according to an FDA news release.

It’s also not clear how much of the vaccine is actually contaminated. The British agency said it suspended Chiron’s license because of “concerns of possible microbial contamination.” And the FDA news release refers to “findings concerning the contamination of some lots.”

Wrong on The Black Caucus

The “Black Congressional Caucus”

Kerry: This is a president who hasn’t met with the Black Congressional Caucus. This is a president who has not met with the civil rights leadership of our country.

Kerry wrongly claimed Bush “hasn’t met with the Black Congressional Caucus. He garbled the organization’s name, for one thing. It’s actually the Congressional Black Caucus, made up of 39 African-American members of the House.

And in fact, Bush met with the caucus a few days after taking office, on Jan. 31, 2001. “This will be the beginning of, hopefully, a lot of meetings.” Bush told them. “I hope you come back, and I’ll certainly be inviting.” But it was more than three years before the next meeting, on Feb. 25, 2004. Bush met with members of the caucus after they paid an impromptu visit to the White House to discuss the crisis in Haiti, according to a statement issued by the White House press secretary.

Wrong on the Surplus

Kerry claimed Bush “has taken a $5.6 trillion surplus and turned it into deficits as far as the eye can see.” But the country never actually had a $5.6 trillion surplus. The projected surplus Kerry was referring to was a 10-year figure that was already made dubious by a weakening economy and a pent-up Congressional urge to spend. The largest annual surplus actually realized was $236 billion in fiscal year 2000, which ended a month before Bush was elected.

Recycled Bunkum

Both men recycled a number of distortions and falsehoods that we’ve reported on before:

  • Kerry twice claimed 1.6 million jobs have been lost under Bush, which is 1 million too high.
  • Bush said that in Iraq “We’ll have 125,000 troops trained by the end of this year,” which is wrong. Actually, the security forces being trained are a “mixed bag” of soldiers, border guards and even three-week “shake and bake” police officers, according to House testimony by Deputy Secretary of State Richard Armitage.
  • Kerry again claimed “The jobs the president is creating pay $9,000 less than the jobs that we’re losing,” a fanciful figure based on industry averages that don’t actually compare wages of jobs lost to those of newer jobs.
  • Bush claimed fear of lawsuits drives doctors to “the defensive practice of medicine that costs the federal government some $28 billion a year and costs our society between $60 billion and $100 billion a year,” which is contrary to nearly all academic studies of the matter.
  • Kerry repeated that “I have a plan to cover all Americans” for health care. Actually, his plan wouldn’t cover all Americans. It would increase the percentage who have coverage from 84% currently to an estimated 92% to 95%. But several million would still be left uninsured.
  • Bush again said Kerry “voted to increase taxes 98 times.” But that total includes up to 16 votes on a single tax bill, and 43 votes on budget measures that set targets but don’t actually legislate tax increases.

We Note Some Improvement

The candidates did show improvement on a few matters, however. Kerry didn’t repeat his inflated claim that the Iraq war has cost $200 billion. Instead he stated, correctly, “America now is paying, already $120 billion, up to $200 billion before we’re finished and much more probably.” And Bush stopped short of talking of his support for creating the Department of Homeland Security, something he actually opposed for nearly nine months before switching to support it. This time Bush confined himself to saying “I signed the homeland security bill,” which is quite accurate.



Table T04-0052 , “EGTRRA, JCWA, and JGTRRA: Distribution of Individual Income, Corporate, and Estate Tax Change by Cash Income Percentiles, 2004,” Tax Policy Center, 8 April 2004.

Ed Harris, David Weiner, and Roberton Williams, ” Effective Federal Tax Rates Under Current Law, 2001 to 2014,” Tables 2 & 4, Congressional Budget Office, Aug 2004.

George W. Bush, ” Press Conference by the President,” transcript of White House press conference, 13 March 2002.

Proposed 2004  Budget for the U.S. Department of Education, Office of Management and Budget (OMB).

Closing the Door on Afterschool Programs,” Afterschool Alliance, Spring 2003.

“Fluvirin influenza vaccine manufacturer’s licence suspended,”  news release , Medicines and Healthcare products Regulatory Agency, 6 Oct 2004.

Ron Fournier, “Bush Proposes Education Package,” The Associated Press , 30 Aug 2000.

“Better Education for Better Jobs,” Fact Sheet, The White House, 6 April 2004.

Glenn Kessler and Mike Allen,” Attacks Misleading and Out of Context,” The Washington Post, 14 Oct 2004.

David E. Rosenbaum, “Under Pressure, Mischaracterizations and Misstatements,” The New York Times , 14 Oct 2004.

Misleading statements from both candidates,” USA Today, 14 Oct 2004.

Interim Influenza Vaccination Recommendations: 2004-05,” U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, news release, 5 Oct 2004.

“FDA and U.K. Medicines and Healthcare Products Regulatory Agency (MHRA) Working Cooperatively to Address Flu Vaccine Quality at Chiron’s U.K. Facility,” U.S. Food and Drug Administration, news release, 13 Oct 2004.

Remarks by the President Before Meeting with Congressional Black Caucus,” The White House, 31 Jan 2001.

Statement by the Press Secretary,” The White House, 25 Feb 2004.

Federal News Service, “Testimony of Deputy Secretary of State Richard Armitage,” Hearing of the Foreign Operations, Export Financing and Related Programs Subcommitee of the House Appropriations Committee, 24 Sept 2004.

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