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A Project of The Annenberg Public Policy Center

Radio Daze

No cameras doesn't mean no fumbles at Democratic debate.


At the first all-radio debate of this election cycle, there were several factual faux pas by the Democrats at the table. Two candidates, Joe Biden and Hillary Clinton, were primarily responsible.

  • Biden linked an $18-per-barrel increase in the price of oil to the Senate resolution declaring Iran’s Revolutionary Guard a terrorist organization – even though it took two months to achieve that hike, and it’s a leap of logic to connect the two events.
  • Biden also said, erroneously, that Spanish-speakers didn’t account for the majority of illegal immigrants in the U.S. It’s been a long time since that’s been true.
  • Clinton, in blaming Bush for having “de-fanged” the Consumer Product Safety Commission, ignored the fact that the agency has been losing workers for years – even during her husband’s administration.
  • And Clinton said the Chinese didn’t want her to come to a UN conference on women in 1995. They may not have liked what she said, but they knew her presence would help perceptions of the conference they were hosting.


Sens. Joseph Biden, Hillary Rodham Clinton, Christopher Dodd and Barack Obama; Rep. Dennis Kucinich; and former Sens. John Edwards and Mike Gravel all participated in the debate, which was sponsored by National Public Radio and Iowa Public Radio and took place in Des Moines. New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson was absent to attend a funeral. The debate was divided into three parts, one on Iran, one on China and a third on immigration.

We Are, Therefore It Rains
A question about the Senate’s September adoption of a resolution declaring Iran’s Revolutionary Guard a terrorist organization sparked lively debate, and a whopper by Biden:
Biden: The moment that declaration was made, oil prices jumped over $18 a barrel.

There are two things wrong with this statement. One, it took two months, not a “moment,” for the price of a barrel of oil to increase by $18. According to the Cushing, Okla., WTI Spot Price index used by the Department of Energy, the price per barrel was $80.31 on Sept. 26, the date of the Senate resolution. It wasn’t until Nov. 19 that it went up as much as Biden says, to $99.16.

The second problem is that connecting the increase in the price of oil to the declaration on the Revolutionary Guard is a rather stunning post-hoc fallacy. There’s no evidence that something like the Senate resolution would have anything approaching such a dramatic effect on the price of oil. Some would expect an impact from Bush’s sabre-rattling, although if that were true it would be logical for the price to drop after the release of the most recent National Intelligence Estimate saying Iran abandoned its nuclear program in 2003. It didn’t – the next day the price went up. Some informed followers of oil markets believe that risky financial maneuvers by high-stakes speculators may be having a bigger effect on prices in recent months than almost any other factor.

This all reminds us of last week’s CNN/YouTube Republican debate, when Rudy Giuliani noted that the Yankees won four world championships while he was mayor of New York and haven’t won one since. At least he was kidding.

Salsa with Your Sauerkraut, Señor?
Biden’s discussion of his search for a nanny years ago led him into further trouble.

Biden: Most of the illegals that came to seek a job with me, they did not speak Spanish. They were from Ireland, England. They were from Germany. They were from Poland. The majority of the people here undocumented – 60 percent – are not Spanish speaking.

When host Robert Siegel questioned that, Chris Dodd jumped in and confirmed that most illegals are, in fact, Spanish speakers. Biden wisely deferred to Dodd, and Dodd returned the favor, trying to make it appear Biden was also right.

Biden: Well, Chris tells me they are … Chris knows more about this than anybody here.

Dodd: I think – I think both of you are right. A few statistics, I think more recent arrivals – and that number is higher coming from Latin America. Overall, Joe’s point, the people going back years here, would include a larger number coming from non-Latin American countries. So both numbers may have – may be accurate; just depends how you frame it.

We’d say Dodd’s chivalry went a little too far. According to the Department of Homeland Security’s Office of Immigration Statistics, Mexico was the country of birth of 57 percent of the estimated 11.55 million unauthorized immigrants in 2006. Add in El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras – all Spanish-speaking countries – and it jumps to 67 percent. You’d have to go back many decades – before, say, Dwight D. Eisenhower’s unfortunately named (and, many have written, even more unfortunately executed) “Operation Wetback,” which aimed to deport illegal Mexican laborers – to get to a time when the majority of undocumented immigrants were Britons, Germans, Irish and Poles.

Plenty of Blame

When discussing the safety concerns about toys imported from China, Clinton accused the Bush administration of crippling the Consumer Product Safety Commission:

Clinton: You know, the reason we have such few recalls, even though they have been increasing because the evidence has been so overwhelming, is because this administration has basically de-fanged the Consumer Product Safety Commission.

It’s true that Bush has made some controversial appointments to the CPSC. Congressional Democrats have opposed his choices several times, accusing his nominees of having conflicts of interest or being weak on product safety. When Congress recently voted to shore up the flagging agency, acting chair and Bush appointee Nancy Nord objected to increased funding, prompting some Democrats  to call for her resignation.

CPSC is also widely reported to be understaffed and underfunded. During the Bush administration, the commission has gone from 480 to 401 full-time employees (including only one full-time toy tester, according to the Associated Press), and its budget has increased barely enough to account for inflation. The agency is slow to respond to consumer complaints, a recent Chicago Tribune investigation shows, and it generally relies on the industry to be self-policing, as with the recent Mattel recalls.

But not all of this can be pinned on the Bush administration. CPSC has been shrinking for decades. Since 1980, the agency has had enough money to increase its number of full-time employees in just three years, while it has had to cut workers in 16 years, sometimes precipitously, according to congressional testimony of the Consumer Federation of America. The Bush cuts aren’t by any means the steepest drop it’s seen. Between 1980 and 1982, during Ronald Reagan’s administration, the agency went from 978 employees (its peak number since 1974) to only 649. Even during Bill Clinton’s time in office, the agency went from 515 to 480 employees.

Unloved, But Not Unwanted
Clinton also stretched the facts when she claimed the Chinese didn’t want her to come to a conference during her husband’s administration.
Clinton: You know, 12 years ago, I went to China, and the Chinese didn’t want me to come. And they didn’t want me to make a speech, and when I made the speech, they blocked it out from being heard within China, where I stood up for human rights and in particular women’s rights, because women had been so brutally abused in many settings in China.

Most of what Clinton said is true. The Chinese certainly weren’t eager for her speech at the 1995 United Nations Fourth World Conference on Women to be widely heard. They blacked it out, allowing just 5,000 carefully selected Party members to hear it. From their perspective, they may have been right to do so. She was critical of China’s human rights record in general, especially its treatment of women. Republicans and Democrats alike praised the tough tone of her speech.But contrary to Clinton’s claim, the Chinese very much wanted her to come, according to the Associated Press; she was considered a prize catch. The government even released an American, human rights activist Harry Wu, whom they had convicted of espionage, at least in part as a good faith gesture to convince Clinton to attend the event.

 – by Viveca Novak, with Jess Henig and Joe Miller


Hutzler, Charles. “Discussions Under Way for Clinton Meeting With Chinese President.” Associated Press, 27 August 1995.

Tyler, Patrick E. “Hillary Clinton, In China, Details Abuse Of Women.” New York Times, 6 September 1995.

Consumer Federation of America. Oversight Hearing of the Consumer Product Safety Commission. Testimony of Rachel Weintraub, 21 March 2007.

The MacNeil/Lehrer Newshour, 25 August 1995.