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A Project of The Annenberg Public Policy Center

Republicans Debate in Iowa

More exaggerations and misstatements in the final GOP debate before the Iowa caucuses.


In the Dec. 12 Republican presidential debate in Des Moines:

  • Arizona Sen. John McCain promised to make the U.S. “oil independent” within five years, a goal experts say can’t be achieved.
  • Former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney claimed American students score in the bottom quarter among industrial nations, but they score about average in the most recent tests.
  • Romney also claimed that federal programs to prevent teen pregnancy are “obviously not working,” while in fact births are dramatically below what they were in 1991 despite a relatively small increase last year.
  • Former New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani said a big federal tax cut would produce “a major boost in revenues for the government,” a notion that nearly all economists say is a fantasy.
  • Former Gov. Mike Huckabee claimed he had the most impressive record on education of any GOP candidate, even though Arkansas children scored below the national average while those in Romney’s Massachusetts were No. 1.
  • Rep. Duncan Hunter claimed the cost of administering and complying with the federal income tax is $250 billion a year, far higher than the figure given by a recent presidential advisory commission.


The 90-minute debate was sponsored by the Des Moines Register and televised nationally on CNN, Fox News Channel, MSNBC and C-SPAN3. It was the final debate among GOP candidates before the first-in-the-nation Iowa presidential nomination caucuses, which are scheduled for Jan. 3. We noted the following factual bloopers:

Move Over, Al Gore
Sen. John McCain of Arizona announced a lofty, and, according to experts on the subject, improbable goal of ending foreign oil imports in five years.

McCain: We have got to achieve energy independence, oil independence in this nation. I will make it a Manhattan Project, and we will in five years become oil independent.

We can’t predict the future, so perhaps McCain can make this happen. But experts have serious doubts. “There’s just no way,” says Frank Verrastro, director of the Energy and National Security Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. “You can’t institute technological change that quickly,” he tells FactCheck.org, adding that the U.S. couldn’t ramp up alternative fuels that quickly. “It takes 15 years now to turn over the car fleet,” he says. Verrastro’s organization and the National Petroleum Council issued a report this summer, commissioned by the secretary of energy, that found the U.S. could reduce its reliance on oil imports by a third by 2030 if it instituted various measures, such as increasing fuel efficiency, domestic sources of oil and non-petroleum fuels.

Another study, partly funded by the Pentagon and published in 2004 by the Rocky Mountain Institute, a nonprofit that focuses on energy policy, said it would take until 2040 for the nation to be free of all oil imports, by primarily using new technologies and competition. The nonprofit Americans for Energy Independence vows to “use grass roots support to achieve our independence by the year 2025.”

About 66 percent of the oil used in the U.S. in 2006 came from foreign imports, which amounted to 13.7 million barrels a day. Says Verrastro: “Getting rid of that in five years is a huge task.”

How Low Can You Go?
Former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney exaggerated the extent to which the U.S. lags behind other industrial nations in education. He said, “Our kids score in the bottom 10 or 25 percent in exams around the world among major industrial nations.” That’s not so. Actually, the U.S. ranked closer to the 50th percentile than the bottom quarter, according to the most recent rankings by the Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA), an internationally standardized study administered to15-year-old schoolchildren in 57 countries.
Students in several nations were tested in 2006. In science, the U.S. ranked 29th out of 57, or at the 49th percentile. And in math, the U.S. ranked 35th out of 57, or at the 39th percentile. The U.S. was not ranked in reading for 2006 because of a testing misprint, but in the previous round of testing in 2003 U.S. students again landed near the middle, scoring 15th out of 29, or at the 48th percentile.

A Romney campaign aide said the candidate was referring to a much earlier study in which the United States finished 19th out of 21 nations in math and 16th out of 21 nations in science. But that study, the Third International Math and Science Study (TIMSS) is from 1998.

Teen Pregnancy
Romney also said federal programs to combat teen pregnancy are “obviously not working real well.” Actually, the teenage birth rate declined consistently from 1991 to 2005, dropping 45 percent for 15- to 17-year-olds, 26 percent for 18- to 19-year-olds and 34 percent for 15- to 19-year-olds. It’s true that the most recent report shows the birth rates for these age groups increased in 2006, but the change was small: a 3 percent increase for 15- to 17-year-olds and for 15- to 19-year-olds, and a 4 percent increase for 18- to 19-year-olds. There was a 14 percent decrease for 10- to 14-year-olds.

Magic Tax Cuts

Former New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani repeated a fantastic claim that a big tax cut would produce more revenue, not less.

Giuliani: And then we have to reduce taxes. Right now we should reduce the corporate tax. We should reduce it from 35 percent to 25 percent. It would be a major boost in revenues for the government.

He’s certainly not the only Republican politician to state this view. We’ve criticized John McCain for a similar claim. But you won’t find many economists, Democrat or Republican, who subscribe to it. George H.W. Bush famously called this view “voodoo economics” while campaigning for the Republican nomination in 1980.

Economists agree that lower taxes tend to produce higher economic growth, which does produce additional tax revenue – but not enough to pay for what’s lost. N. Gregory Mankiw, who was the chair of the Council of Economic Advisers under George W. Bush, published a paper last year in which he calculated that over a number of years, capital gains tax cuts generate enough growth to pay for maybe half of the lost revenue. Cuts in taxes on wages would bring enough revenue to pay for about 17 percent of revenue lost.

Who’s “Most Impressive” on Education?
Former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee claimed to have the most impressive record on education, a point Romney disputed, claiming credit for himself:

Huckabee: I had executive experience longer than anyone on this stage running a government. And I had also the most, I think, impressive education record. …

Just one small adjustment to what Governor Huckabee had to say. And I don’t believe you had the finest record of any governor in America on education. … The – the kids in our state, as I indicated, scored number one in all four measures on the national exams, and they did that because of Republican principles, free market principles, applied – and there was a partnership.

So is Huckabee wrong? It’s true that Massachusetts school children scored first in the nation in the most recent National Assessment of Educational Progress, scoring a clean sweep among both fourth-graders and eighth-graders in math and reading. (It was a three-way tie for first in eighth-grade reading, with students in Massachusetts, Vermont and the Department of Defense Education Activity all turning in the same average scores.) But Massachusetts also had ranked at or near the top before Romney took office, so he’s straining the facts to attribute the success entirely to “Republican principles” and his leadership.

Arkansas consistently scored below the national average before Huckabee came along, and on most tests it still does. But on all four NAEP tests, Arkansas’ scores moved closer to the average during Huckabee’s time in office. In fourth-grade math, Arkansas students were near enough to the national average in 2007 as to be within the statistical margin of error, though for eighth-grade math, as well as reading in both fourth and eighth grades, it was still significantly below average.

Huckabee also substantially increased funding for schools, under a mandate from the Arkansas Supreme Court that called the school funding system unconstitutional. And while the Arkansas General Assembly dragged its feet and funds did not increase as much as originally recommended, the school system was pronounced satisfactory after Huckabee’s changes.

Coming from below average to not-so-much-below average, and from “unconstitutionally unfair” to “satisfactory” are both significant. Whether that constitutes the “most impressive” record among GOP candidates, we’ll leave others to judge.

Taxing the Truth
Rep. Duncan Hunter of California overstated the compliance burden of the federal tax system:

Hunter: The tax that we’re all paying that doesn’t help anything … is the $250 billion-plus that we pay each year not to the federal government, to the Treasury, but to prepare our taxes, defend our taxes, and for the massive cost of the IRS. That’s all overhead – 250 billion-plus dollars.

We’re not sure where Hunter gets that figure. The President’s Advisory Panel on Tax Reform puts total compliance costs at around $140 billion per year, a figure that includes the value of individual taxpayer’s time spent filling out forms, which strictly speaking is not money “that we pay.” Add to that the “more than $10 billion” that the government spends to administer the tax system, and the figure comes to $150 billion, not $250 billion. The advisory panel report says other estimates of compliance costs fall between $100 billion and $200 billion.

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

Correction, Dec. 13: Our headline originally said the debate took place in Des Moines. It was held in Johnston, Iowa.


U.S. Can Eliminate Oil Use in a Few Decades.” Rocky Mountain Institute. Press release, 20 Sept. 2004.

United States, Energy Information Administration. “Basic Petroleum Statistics.” Updated July 2007.

Sadler, Aaron. “Arkansas Text Scores Catch Up With Nation.” Arkansas News Bureau. 20 Oct. 2007.

Arkansas Legislature Bureau of Legislative Research. “Education Summary, 2007 Regular Session.” June 2007.

Report of the President’s Advisory Panel on Federal Tax Reform” November 2005: 33-35.

Mankiw, N. Gregory and Matthew Weinzierl, “Dynamic Scoring: A Back-of-the-Envelope Guide,” 12 Dec. 2005.

PISA 2006. Programme for International Student Assessment, Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development, 2007.

Learning for Tomorrow’s World: First Results from PISA 2003.” Programme for International Student Assessment, Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development, 2004.

National Vital Statistics Reports. “Births: Preliminary Data for 2006.” National Center for Health Statistics, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 5 Dec. 2007.