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A Project of The Annenberg Public Policy Center

Dems Face YouTube Interrogators

A few flubs in the Democrats' first "official" debate.


The Democratic presidential hopefuls faced CNN host Anderson Cooper and a handful of citizens who submitted questions in video format. We found a few misstatements.

  • Sen. Barack Obama wrongly implied that GOP presidential candidate Mitt Romney supported policies specifically addressing sex education for 5-year-olds.
  • Sen. Hillary Clinton said tax breaks for oil companies have gotten “much greater” under President Bush, which (contrary to popular impression) isn’t so.
  • Sen. Chris Dodd is not the only candidate pressing for some kind of carbon tax on corporate polluters, as he seemed to be claiming he was.


Though this was the fourth time the Democratic presidential candidates have debated, it was the first “official” debate, meaning the first one sanctioned by the Democratic National Committee. The most significant difference, though, was that some questions were submitted from citizens via YouTube, adding a small-“d” democratic element to this event in Charleston, S.C. All the declared Democratic candidates participated.

Sex, Sex, Sex

We thought that might keep you reading. At the debate, Obama accused Republican Mitt Romney of supporting sex education for 5-year-olds when he was running for governor of Massachusetts. Earlier, Romney had accused Obama of the same thing. But both are twisting each other’s words.For several days now, Obama has been dealing with a flap over comments he made to a Planned Parenthood gathering last week. He said that he had once been attacked for advocating “teaching sex education to kindergarteners” as a state senator in Illinois. And he added, “It’s the right thing to do…to provide age-appropriate sex education, science-based sex education in schools.”

Although video of that statement shows Obama stressed the term “age-appropriate,” an ABCNews.com story carried the headline “Sex Ed for Kindergarteners ‘Right Thing to Do,’ Says Obama.” Romney seized on the headline and slammed Obama, saying, “Senator Obama is wrong if he thinks science-based sex education has any place in kindergarten…. We should be working to clean up the filthy waters our kids are swimming in.”

The Obama campaign later pointed to a 2004 story in the Chicago Daily Herald in which Obama said he “does not support teaching explicit sex education to children in kindergarten.”

Obama: Nobody’s suggesting that kindergartners are going to be getting information about sex in the way that we think about it. If they ask a teacher ‘where do babies come from,’ that providing information that the fact is that it’s not a stork is probably not an unhealthy thing. Although again, that’s going to be determined on a case by case basis by local communities and local school boards.

Obama’s presidential campaign said the legislation he supported at the state level was also meant to teach children about inappropriate touching, and it also had a provision allowing parents who objected to opt out of such instruction for their children.

At the debate, Obama claimed his position was actually the same as one Romney once held, saying:

Obama: Ironically, this was actually a proposal that [Romney] himself said he supported when he was running for governor of Massachusetts. Apparently, he forgot.

Obama’s campaign told us he was referring to Romney’s written response to a 2002 Planned Parenthood questionnaire:

Planned Parenthood: Do you support the teaching of responsible, age-appropriate, factually accurate health and sexuality education, including information about both abstinence and contraception, in public schools?

Romney: Yes.

Both candidates are straining the facts here. Romney mischaracterized Obama’s position by implying that he advocates “filthy” material in kindergarten. And while Romney himself is on record supporting “age-appropriate” and “scientific” sex education in schools, he didn’t specifically endorse that at the kindergarten level. The Planned Parenthood questionnaire only mentioned “schools,” without reference to age or grade level. So, we find that Obama was wrong to say that Romney’s position was “the same” as his.

Oil Slick

Clinton wrongly claimed that the Bush-Cheney administration had increased tax breaks for the oil industry:

Clinton: First of all, I have proposed a strategic energy fund that I would fund by taking away the tax break for the oil companies, which have gotten much greater under Bush and Cheney.

Actually, the highly publicized energy bill the president signed in 2005 raised taxes slightly on the oil industry as a whole, according to the nonpartisan Congressional Research Service:

Congressional Research Service: The Energy Policy Act of 2005 (EPACT05, P.L. 109-58) included several oil and gas tax incentives, providing about $2.6 billion of tax cuts for the oil and gas industry. In addition, EPACT05 provided for $2.9 billion of tax increases on the oil and gas industry, for a net tax increase on the industry of nearly $300 million over 11 years.

It’s true that many generous subsidies were proposed and debated, but those were stripped out before the bill was passed in the midst of rising oil prices. As we reported last year, the bill as it was passed contained $14.3 billion in tax breaks,   but the bulk of the cuts went to electric utilities, and nuclear, and also to alternative fuels research and subsidies for energy-efficient cars, homes and buildings – not to the oil industry. And as the CRS notes, the breaks that the oil and gas industry received were more than offset by tax increases contained in the same measure.

PACs and Lobbyists

A testy exchange between Gravel and Obama requires some clarification.

Gravel: And I want to take on Barack Obama for a minute, who said he doesn’t take money from lobbyists. Well, he has 134 bundlers. Now, what does he think that is?
And, besides that, he has received money from a Robert Wolf, the head of the USB (sic) bank in the United States, who raised $195,000 who has lobbyists in Washington….

Well, the fact is I don’t take PAC money and I don’t take lobbyists’ money. And the bundlers previously, Obama’s policy is an ethical tightrope.

The senator’s official policy “specifically states that the Obama campaign does not accept donations or fundraising help from federal lobbyists or PACs,” according to a campaign spokesperson. Obama, however, is sticking to a strict interpretation of his ban on lobbyist contributions. His campaign does take money from spouses of lobbyists, partners in lobbying firms who do not themselves lobby, ex-lobbyists and state lobbyists, according to numerous news reports.

Robert Wolf, COO of the Switzerland-based UBS Investment Bank and chairman of its Americas division, has raised money for Obama and encouraged his employees to make contributions, which they did, to the tune of $194,930 as of July 15. Those contributions don’t violate the letter of Obama’s pledge, even though UBS, like most large corporations, has lobbyists in Washington. Obama voluntarily listed Wolf, along with 254 other “bundlers” (influential types who agree to encourage and collect individual contributions) on his Web site. (Gravel is correct in that the list previously had totaled 134 people.)

While Obama did sponsor an amendment to the Legislative Transparency and Accountability Act of 2007 (S.1) that would require lobbyists to disclose the candidates, PACs or parties for whom they collected money, action on the measure stalled after it passed the Senate in January. Furthermore, since Obama isn’t accepting money from federal lobbyists, the amendment wouldn’t even apply to his bundlers.

Carbon Copy

Chris Dodd was rhetorically accurate but intellectually disingenuous when he said, “But I believe I’m the only candidate here, along with Al Gore, who’s called for that, is (sic) a corporate carbon tax. You’ve got to tax polluters.”

Dodd is the only candidate to call for a “corporate carbon tax,” and indeed, Al Gore has advocated the same, though he often refers to it as a “pollution tax.” But two other candidates offer similar plans. Both Richardson and Edwards have proposed some form of carbon permitting by which companies would have to apply and pay a fee for the right to emit carbon pollutants. It is worth noting that all three candidates have also called for a reduction in greenhouse emissions of at least 80 percent below 1990 levels by 2050.

Not So Fast

Biden got just a little ahead of the facts when describing how much the rich benefit from Bush’s tax cuts.

Biden: First of all, change the tax structure. We are giving people tax breaks who don’t need it. The top 1 percent got an $85 billion a year tax break. It is not needed.

Actually, according to the nonpartisan Tax Policy Center, the most affluent 1 percent of taxpayers will get about a $67 billion tax break this year, compared with what they would have paid without the Bush tax cuts. But the total is getting bigger each year as incomes grow. The estimated breaks for the top 1 percent will reach $76 billion in 2008 and $95 billion in 2010.

Bye Bye Chads

If Biden was a little ahead of himself, Richardson had some catching up to do. He greatly understated the number of states that have voter-verified paper trails connected to their voting machines.

Richardson: I, as president, I would push the whole country to verified paper trails. There are close to 10 states that do this.

There are 28 states with laws or regulations requiring a paper record of every vote, which is viewable by the voter before the ballot is cast, according to VerifiedVoting.org, the nonpartisan group that tracks these developments. Thirteen of those states even require mandatory manual audits of the machines (Richardson’s state, New Mexico, is one of them).

Medicare and Diabetes

A claim that grabbed our attention was Richardson’s assertion that “Medicare – 33 percent of it is diabetes.” But that surprisingly high figure turns out to be reasonably accurate. The Center for Medicare and Medicaid Services has said that, “about 18 percent of Medicare beneficiaries have diabetes, yet they account for 32 percent of Medicare spending.” To be strictly accurate Richardson should have said that diabetics account for the large share of Medicare spending, not diabetes. The disease is usually accompanied by a variety of other ailments that also require treatment.

Bringing Home the Troops

There was a tiff about just how quickly the Pentagon could get U.S. troops home from Iraq if it were so ordered.

Biden: Anderson, you’ve been there. You know we can’t just pull out now. Let’s get something straight. It’s time to start to tell the truth. The truth of the matter is: If we started today, it would take one year, one year to get 160,000 troops physically out of Iraq, logistically.

Richardson: This is what I stand for: I believe we should bring all the troops home by the end of this year, in six months, with no residual forces no residual forces.

Dodd: I have advocated, again, that we have our troops out by April of next year. I believe that the timeframe is appropriate to do that.

Clinton: But Joe is right. You know, I have done extensive work on this. And the best estimate is that we can probably move a brigade a month, if we really accelerate it, maybe a brigade and a half or two a month. That is a lot of months.
My point is: They’re not even planning for that in the Pentagon.

Clinton is correct that the Department of Defense has not yet constructed specific plans for a withdrawal from Iraq. In a briefing delivered on May 9, Gen. Peter Pace, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, stated that the DoD does not in fact have a contingency plan for bringing home all American soldiers at once. That means that there is no official line on how long it would take to redeploy all the troops in Iraq. Privately, military sources agree that it’s impossible to give a realistic estimate without deciding certain parameters such as the acceptable degree of risk for troops that would be withdrawing in the face of an armed enemy. Potentially, then, all of the above candidates are right.

If you didn’t like this debate, there will be lots more to choose from, something you may take as a blessing or a curse at this point in the season. You won’t have to wait long, either. One crushing week in early August will bring three more Democratic events (minus the YouTube element). The next Republican debate is August 5, when ABC News’ George Stephanopoulos questions the candidates.

– by Viveca Novak, with Brooks Jackson, Justin Bank, Jessica Henig, Emi Kolawole, Joe Miller, Lori Robertson, Carolyn Auwaerter and Allie Berkson


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United States, Federal Election Commission. Presidential Campaign Finance Through 06/30/2007. 24 July 2007.

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Bolton, Alexander. “Obama’s K Street project.The Hill. 28 Mar. 2007.

Kirkpatrick, David and Pilhofer, Aron. “Finance Filings Offer Glimpses of ’08 Candidates.” The New York Times. 17 Apr. 2007.

Congressional Research Service. Oil and Gas Tax Subsidies: Current Status and Analysis. Washington: GPO, 2007.