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Twisting Facts in Spanglish

Democrats get a few facts wrong during a bilingual debate on Univision.


The Sunday night debate, complete with interpreters, produced a few flubs or fibs from the Democratic field, including these:

  • Rep. Dennis Kucinich gave a figure for health insurance company profits that was vastly overstated. He also made a much-disputed claim about NAFTA.
  • Former Sen. John Edwards made his health care plan seem cheaper than it would actually be. He assumed it was in effect right now, rather than the soonest it could possibly be implemented, which is 2009 or 2010.
  • Moderator Jorge Ramos repeatedly referred to Kucinich as "senator.”


The Univision debate, held at the University of Miami Sept. 9, was the first to be broadcast entirely in Spanish. (Candidates spoke in English, but the audience heard a translation; the two moderators asked their questions in Spanish.) Sen. Joe Biden of Delaware was the only candidate in the Democratic field to pass up the event. Univision has invited Republican candidates to a similar debate, but so far none is scheduled.

Much of the evening was given to softball questions, starting with, "Why do you consider it important to participate in this presidential forum?" and ending with, "What’s the greatest contribution of the Hispanics in the United States?" Candidates were seldom pressed for specifics and took full advantage, using glowing generalities to court the network’s sought-after Hispanic audience. Nevertheless, we did note some factual discrepancies:

False Profits

Rep. Dennis Kucinich of Ohio used a vastly inflated figure for the profits of health insurers:

Kucinich: [W]e’re stuck with this system, where insurance companies make $600 billion a year out of spending that ought to go directly into health care, we’re not going to get the care we need.

In fact, health insurance companies don’t make nearly that much. According to the most recent historical data from the Department of Health and Human Services’ National Health Expenditures Accounts, the total of all premiums paid for private health insurance was $694.4 billion in 2005. But of that total, $596.7 billion was paid out in benefits. The remainder went to administrative and "net" costs, such as claims processing, disease and care management, sales, marketing, and taxes. These statistics don’t break out a figure for profits, but it would be some fraction of the $97.7 billion that doesn’t go to benefits, and a far cry from $600 billion.

Therapeutic Massage

Former Sen. John Edwards of North Carolina low-balled the price tag for his ambitious health care plan, massaging the numbers by using an impossible assumption:

Edwards: My own health care plan, which was the first one in this campaign and I’m very proud of it – comprehensive, requires coverage for everybody – costs $90 [billion] to $120 billion a year.

Actually, the cost of the plan in its first year would be $105.6 billion to $145.6 billion, according to an independent estimate by Emory University professor Ken Thorpe. That assumes the plan could be enacted quickly and take effect in 2010, within a year of the new president being sworn in. The Edwards campaign says the candidate’s $90 billion to $120 billion price tag is what the plan would cost if it were in place today – which isn’t possible. An aide says the campaign worked with Thorpe, and their estimate is based on Thorpe’s estimate of the cost as a percentage of the nation’s gross domestic product. But it is not an estimate of what the plan would cost in the first year it possibly could take effect, and Edwards didn’t make that clear.

Moderator Missteps

Not all the factual stumbles came from the candidates. One of the moderators, Jorge Ramos, kept referring to “Senator Kucinich” during the evening, doing so three times. But Dennis Kucinich isn’t a senator; he’s a member of the House.

The second moderator Maria Elena Salinas used an incorrect figure when she said, “More than 40 million Americans lack health insurance. Among them are 13 million Hispanics, one in every three.”

It’s true that one in three Hispanics lacks health insurance – 34.1 percent of the uninsured to be exact, according to figures the U.S. Census Bureau released Aug. 28. But the number of uninsured Hispanics was 15.3 million last year, not 13 million. And the total number of uninsured Americans was just under 47 million, considerably more than what the moderator said

Jobs and Trade

Rep. Kucinich asserted a relationship between NAFTA and the collapse of the Mexican peso that many economists say doesn’t exist.

Kucinich: Well, first of all, we have to understand why so many people came north of the border to seek work. I talked earlier about the connection between NAFTA, trade and our immigration policies. When NAFTA was passed, there was an acceleration of immigration from Mexico because people were in search of jobs. They were told their wages were going to go up. Wages collapsed in Mexico.

His chronology is correct; his economic theory is highly debatable. The North American Free Trade Agreement went into effect Jan. 1, 1994. The Mexican peso collapsed late that year, leading to large job losses and reduced wages.

But an Oct. 1995 New York Times story said, “Most economists say NAFTA had little or nothing to do with the [peso] crisis.” The World Bank, too, describes the peso collapse as coincidental, stating in a 2003 report that the currency devaluation and subsequent banking crisis and recession were “big events that coincided with the implementation of NAFTA.” The report, in fact, attempts to separate the effects of NAFTA from economic effects of the “Tequila crisis,” as the peso collapse was called. Also, the Congressional Budget Office said NAFTA had little to do with the Mexico’s currency woes. A 2003 CBO report describes various factors that led to the Tequila crisis, including “the market’s nervousness about the historically high real value of the peso,” political turmoil, government policies, and a subsequent decline in foreign investment and rising interest rates.

However, Kucinich is not the only one to espouse a NAFTA-peso relationship. Robert A. Blecker of the liberal Economic Policy Institute, whose board is heavy with labor union presidents who strenuously opposed enactment of NAFTA, argued the connection in a 1997 report titled "NAFTA and The Peso Collapse: Not Just a Coincidence." Blecker writes: “It is certainly true that Mexico’s macroeconomic and exchange-rate policies were flawed and the peso devaluation was badly managed. Nevertheless, the peso had to be devalued in order to implement the Mexican strategy for export-led growth that NAFTA was intended to promote.”

$1 Billion to Block Reform?
Sen. Barack Obama of Illinois used a figure that also sounded dubious to us, but it turned out to be correct:

Obama: [W]e’ve also got to overcome the drug company lobbies, the insurance company lobbies, that spent – (cheers, applause) – $1 billion over the last 10 years to block reform.

According to the Center for Responsive Politics, the pharmaceutical and insurance industries spent $1.2 billion and $949 million, respectively, on all lobbying efforts since 1998. Moreover, the two industries combined shelled out about $193 million in political donations and expenditures backing Republicans, about twice as much as they spent supporting Democrats. So it is reasonable to conclude that the pharmaceutical and insurance industries have indeed spent at least $1 billion combating legislation that Obama favors.

All eight Democratic candidates are set to meet again Wednesday evening for an online-only "mash-up" – yes, it’s the "first-ever" – sponsored by The Huffington Post blog, Yahoo! and Slate. Viewers submit the queries and pick and choose the parts of the debate they want to watch online.

– by Brooks Jackson, with Viveca Novak, Justin Bank, Jess Henig, Emi Kolawole, Joe Miller and Lori Robertson


Office of the Actuary, Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services,U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, "National Health Expenditure Accounts", historical data tables, 8 Jan. 2007

Health Insurance Coverage: 2006, Table 6: "People With or Without Health Insurance Coverage by Selected Characteristics: 2005 and 2006,"  U.S. Census Bureau,  28 Aug 2007

Thorpe, Kenneth E. "A Preliminary Analysis of Senator John Edwards’ Health Reform Proposal." 3 Feb. 2007.

Lederman, Daniel; Maloney, William F. and Serven, Luis. "Lessons from NAFTA for Latin American and Caribbean Countries: A Summary of Research Findings." The World Bank. Dec. 2003.

United States, Congressional Budget Office. "The Effects of NAFTA on U.S.-Mexican Trade and GDP." May 2003.

Blecker, Robert A. "NAFTA and the Peso Collapse: Not Just a Coincidence." Economic Policy Institute. May 1997.

DePalma, Anthony. "For Mexico, Nafta’s Promise Of Jobs Is Still Just a Promise." The New York Times. 10 Oct. 1995.