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Clinton-Obama Slugfest

Who lands a clean punch? Edwards was there, too.


In one of the liveliest debates of the 2008 presidential campaign, the three top Democrats slugged it out in Myrtle Beach, S.C. We noted some low blows:

  • Clinton falsely accused Obama of saying he "really liked the ideas of the Republicans" including private Social Security accounts and deficit spending. Not true. The entire 49-minute interview to which she refers contains no endorsement of private Social Security accounts or deficit spending, and Obama specifically scorned GOP calls for tax cuts.
  • Obama falsely denied endorsing single-payer government health insurance when he first ran for the Senate, saying, "I never said that we should try to go ahead and get single-payer." But in fact he gave a speech in 2003 saying, "I happen to be a proponent of a single-payer health care program."
  • Edwards misleadingly claimed, "I was the one who beat John McCain" in a recent CNN poll. The problem is that there is a more recent CNN poll, one that shows either Clinton or Obama beating McCain and doesn't include Edwards.


Just three Democratic candidates took part in the scorching debate cosponsored by CNN and the Congressional Black Caucus in Myrtle Beach, S.C.: Hillary Clinton, Barack Obama and John Edwards. It was the next-to-last such encounter scheduled for the Democrats prior to the Feb. 5 "Super Duper Tuesday" showdown when more than 20 states hold nominating contests. South Carolina Democrats go to the polls Saturday.

I Love the '80s!

Clinton attacked Obama for supposedly supporting Republican ideas, which she said included federal deficits and "privatizing" Social Security:

Clinton: [He] has said in the last week that he really liked the ideas of the Republicans over the last 10 to 15 years, and we can give you the exact quote. … They were ideas like privatizing Social Security, like moving back from a balanced budget and a surplus to deficit and debt.

Obama pushed back, saying he had never endorsed such notions:

Clinton: [You] talked about the Republicans having ideas over the last 10 to 15 years.

Obama: I didn't say they were good ones.

Clinton: Well, you can read the context of it.

Obama: Well, I didn't say they were good ones. …

Clinton: It certainly came across in the way that it was presented…

We can’t speak to how things "came across" to Clinton, but we’ve listened to the entire interview and to our ears, it’s just flatly false that Obama said he "really liked the ideas of the Republicans." Clinton is referring to what Obama told the editorial board of the Reno Gazette-Journal. A video is available on the Internet.

Here’s what Obama actually said in the portion to which Clinton referred:

Obama (Jan. 14, 2008): The Republican approach has played itself out. I think it’s fair to say that the Republicans were the party of ideas for a pretty long chunk of time there over the last 10, 15 years, in the sense that they were challenging conventional wisdom. Now, you’ve heard it all before. You look at the economic policies when they’re being debated among the presidential candidates, it’s all tax cuts. Well, we know, we’ve done that; we’ve tried it. That’s not really going to solve our energy problems, for example.

There’s a difference between praising someone for having ideas and praising the idea itself. Obama is doing the former – and just as clearly not doing the latter. He says the GOP approach has "played itself out," for example.

It’s also false to imply – as Clinton did – that Obama endorsed Republican proposals to set up private Social Security accounts or that he praised deficit spending. We listened to the entire 49-minute interview, and Obama said no such thing.

Obama's Reagan Remarks to Reno Gazette-Journal, Jan. 14, 2008

[TET ]

Obama: I don’t want to present myself as some sort of singular figure. I think part of what’s different are the times. I do think that, for example, the 1980 election was different. I mean, I think Ronald Reagan changed the trajectory of America in a way that, you know, Richard Nixon did not, and in a way that Bill Clinton did not. He put us on a fundamentally different path, because the country was ready for it. I think they felt like, you know, with all the excesses of the '60s and the '70s, you know government had grown and grown, but there wasn’t much sense of accountability in terms of how it was operating, and I think people just tapped into – he tapped into what people were already feeling, which is we want clarity, we want optimism, we want a return to that sense of dynamism, and, and, you know, entrepreneurship that had been missing.

I think Kennedy, 20 years earlier, moved the country in a fundamentally different direction. So I think a lot of it just has to do with the times. I think we’re in one of those times right now, where people feels like things as they are going right now aren’t working, that we’re bogged down in the same arguments that we’ve been having, and they’re not useful. And the Republican approach, I think, has played itself out. I think it’s fair to say that the Republicans were the party of ideas for a pretty long chunk of time there over the last 10, 15 years, in the sense that they were challenging conventional wisdom.

Now, you’ve heard it all before. You look at the economic policies when they’re being debated among the presidential candidates, it’s all tax cuts. Well, we know, we’ve done that; we’ve tried it. That’s not really going to solve our energy problems, for example.[/TET]

I Love the '80s: Part Deux

Obama also has been taking heat for praising Ronald Reagan in that same interview. See the text box to the left for his exact words. Clinton tried to avoid mentioning that, for good reason, but Obama turned it against her anyway:

Obama: The irony of this is that you provided much more fulsome praise of Ronald Reagan in a book by Tom Brokaw that's being published right now, as did – as did Bill Clinton in the past. So these are the kinds of political games that we are accustomed to.

Obama is correct: Both Bill and Hillary Clinton have lauded Reagan’s political skills. Tom Brokaw’s "Boom! Voices of the Sixties" quotes Clinton as saying that Reagan was "a child of the Depression" who understood pressures on the working and middle class:

Hillary Clinton (in Brokaw book): When he had those big tax cuts and they went too far, he oversaw the largest tax increase. He could call the Soviet Union the Evil Empire and then negotiate arms-control agreements. He played the balance and the music beautifully.

And here’s Bill Clinton in 1998 at the dedication of the Reagan Building in Washington, D.C.:

Bill Clinton (May 5, 1998): The only thing that could make this day more special is if President Reagan could be here himself. But if you look at this atrium, I think we feel the essence of his presence: his unflagging optimism, his proud patriotism, his unabashed faith in the American people. I think every American who walks through this incredible space and lifts his or her eyes to the sky will feel that.

We’ll leave it to others to decide who's praising Reagan more. The fact is that Bill and Hillary have done it, not just Obama.

To Their Health

Clinton charged that Obama’s position has shifted on health care, from favoring a single-payer, universal system when he was a Senate candidate to the plan he favors now, which would provide access to health insurance for all but wouldn’t require it. Obama denied that he had ever said he would work to get a single-payer plan. We score this round for Clinton.

Clinton: Secondly, we have seen once again a kind of evolution here. When Senator Obama ran for the Senate, he was for single-payer and said he was for single-payer if we could get a Democratic president and Democratic Congress. As time went on, the last four or so years, he said he was for single-payer in principle, then he was for universal health care. And then his policy is not, it is not universal. …

Obama: I never said that we should try to go ahead and get single-payer. What I said was that if I were starting from scratch, if we didn't have a system in which employers had typically provided health care, I would probably go with a single-payer system.

But Obama's denial doesn't hold up. In a speech to the AFL-CIO in 2003, when he was setting up his run for the Senate, Obama said:

Obama (June, 30, 2003): I happen to be a proponent of a single-payer health care program. I see no reason why the United States of America, the wealthiest country in the history of the world, is spending 14 percent, 14 percent, of its gross national product on health care cannot provide basic health insurance to everybody. And that’s what Jim is talking about when he says everybody in, nobody out. A single-payer health care plan, a universal health care plan. And that’s what I’d like to see. And as all of you know, we may not get there immediately. Because first we have to take back the White House, we have to take back the Senate, we have to take back the House.

That sounds to us like someone who's pretty gung-ho for a single-payer plan. But after Democrats captured control of both the House and Senate in 2006, Obama tempered his position. He said in a New Yorker interview last year:

Obama (in The New Yorker, May 7, 2007): If you're starting from scratch, then a single-payer system … would probably make sense. But we've got all these legacy systems in place, and managing the transition … would be difficult to pull off. So we may need a system that's not so disruptive.

But that was 2007, not when he was running for the Senate, which is what Clinton was referring to.

Obama "Took a Pass?"
Clinton was mostly right when she attacked Obama for casting  130 "present" votes as an Illinois state senator. But she was wrong when she added, "the Chicago Tribune, his hometown paper, said that all of those present votes was taking a pass. It was for political reasons."
It’s true that Obama voted "present" nearly 130 times, rather than casting a yes or no vote, an option in the state Legislature. But let's straighten out the sourcing of the article that said he "essentially took a pass" when he cast those votes. That one was written by Nathan Gonzales, political editor of the Rothenberg Political Report, in a Feb. 14, 2007, opinion piece in the Wall Street Journal, not the Chicago Tribune. The Tribune story, which ran in December, did quote Bonnie Grabenhofer, president of Illinois National Organization of Women as saying, "When we needed someone to take a stand, Senator Obama took a pass." But those weren't the words of the Tribune itself. And Grabenhofer was endorsing Clinton at the time.
Beyond that, there's some substance to Clinton's general criticism. Obama says some of his votes were part of intricate parliamentary maneuvering, not just avoiding political heat. The New York Times examined the issue in December and found a mixed record: "Sometimes the 'present' votes were in line with instructions from Democratic leaders or because he objected to provisions in bills that he might otherwise support," the paper reported. "At other times, Mr. Obama voted present on questions that had overwhelming bipartisan support. In at least a few cases, the issue was politically sensitive."

Ka-Pow! Boffo!

Obama and Clinton traded more personal swipes when Obama attacked Clinton's one-time membership on the board of directors of the world's largest retailer:

Obama: Because while I was working on those streets watching those folks see their jobs shift overseas, you were a corporate lawyer sitting on the board at Wal-Mart.

It's true that Clinton sat on the Wal-Mart board for six years while her husband was governor of Arkansas, where the chain has its corporate headquarters. She was paid about $18,000 a year for doing it. At the time, she worked at the Rose Law Firm, which had represented Wal-Mart in various matters. According to accounts from other board members, Clinton was a thorn in the side of the company's founder, Sam Walton, on the matter of promoting women, few of whom were in the ranks of managers or executives at the time. She also strongly advocated for more environmentally sound corporate practices, board colleagues and company executives noted. She made limited progress in both areas, but she never voiced any objections to the company's anti-union stand, they said. But in 2005 she returned a $5,000 contribution to her campaign from Wal-Mart, citing "serious differences" with its "current" practices.

Clinton hit back at Obama, reminding voters of his relationship with a longtime contributor who is now under federal indictment.

Clinton: …I was fighting against those ideas when you were practicing law and representing your contributor, Rezko, in his slum landlord business in inner city Chicago. …

CNN's Wolf Blitzer: Senator Clinton made a serious allegation that you worked for a slumlord. And I wonder if you want to respond.

Obama: I'm happy to respond. Here's what happened: I was an associate at a law firm that represented a church group that had partnered with this individual to do a project and I did about five hours worth of work on this joint project. That's what she's referring to.

According to an investigation last year by the Chicago Sun-Times, Antoin Rezko was involved in developing at least 30 low-income housing buildings in Chicago, in partnership with several community groups and using a combination of taxpayer and private funds. A number of the buildings fell into disrepair, collecting housing code violations, and Rezmar, Rezko's company, was sued on many occasions.

Obama was associated with a law firm that represented the community groups working with Rezko on several deals. There's no evidence that Obama spent much time on them, and he never represented Rezko directly. So it was wrong for Clinton to say he was "representing … Rezko." That's untrue.

Obama has known Rezko, however, since he left Harvard Law School, and Rezko has been a major contributor and campaign fundraiser for him since Obama's first campaign for the Illinois state Senate. Earlier, we looked into questions about a land deal in which the two wound up with adjacent parcels. No wrongdoing was found in connection with that transaction, though Obama has said it was "boneheaded" for him to be involved in it when he knew Rezko was under investigation. Rezko has since been indicted on fraud and other charges. Obama, who returned some contributions from Rezko and his associates long ago, returned another $41,000 over the weekend in an effort to distance himself from the businessman.

Borrowed Time

Clinton and Obama battled over their votes on bankruptcy bills and an amendment to cap interest charged on credit.

Clinton: There was a particular amendment that I think is very telling. It was an amendment to prohibit credit card companies from charging more than 30 percent interest. … I voted for limiting to 30 percent what credit card companies could charge. Senator Obama did not. …

Obama: It is a fact, because I thought 30 percent potentially was too high of a ceiling.

Obama did vote against – and Clinton voted for – an amendment that would have placed a 30 percent cap on the interest rate that could be charged on any extension of credit. The amendment failed by a vote of 74 to 24 in 2005. We could not find any public statements made by Obama regarding the amendment. The Clinton campaign points to a Chicago Tribune article that says Obama changed his mind on the vote in a move the paper attributes, in a none-too-flattering way, to the freshman senator's learning curve:

Chicago Tribune (June 12, 2007): To some liberals, the proposal was a no-brainer: a ceiling of 30 percent on interest rates for credit cards and other consumer debt. And as he left his office to vote on it, Obama planned to support the measure. …

But when the amendment came up for a vote, Obama was standing next to Sen. Paul Sarbanes, D-Md., the senior Democrat on the banking committee and the leader of those opposing the landmark bill, which would make it harder for Americans to get rid of debt. "You know, this is probably not a smart amendment for us to vote for," Obama recalled Sarbanes telling him. "Thirty percent is sort of a random number."

Obama joined Sarbanes in voting against the amendment. … Obama's deferral to Sarbanes was just one example of the freshman senator learning to navigate a chamber famous for its egos.

As for whether the 30 percent cap was too high, that’s certainly a matter of opinion. Sen. Mark Dayton of Minnesota, sponsor of the amendment, said on the Senate floor that such a cap “is still consumer abuse” but is much better than rates of more than 300 percent, which he said were being charged by some loan operations in the country. The nonpartisan Government Accountability Office said in a September 2006 report that the rates credit card companies charge to those who commit a "violation of terms" averaged 27.3 percent in 2005. Seven of the 28 cards the GAO examined charged rates of more than 30 percent.

In last night’s debate, Clinton also said she had opposed the overall bankruptcy bill, which made it more difficult for consumers to erase debt by declaring bankruptcy; Obama opposed it, too. She didn't vote on the final bill, which passed by a 74-25 vote, because it was the day of her husband's heart surgery.

Also, Obama mischaracterized Clinton's comments on her vote for an earlier, 2001 bankruptcy bill. He said:

Obama: In the last debate, Senator Clinton said she voted for [the 2001 bill] but hoped that it wouldn't pass. Now, I don't understand that approach to legislation.

That's not exactly what Clinton said. Moderator Tim Russert asked if she regretted voting for the 2001 bill. She answered:

Clinton (Jan. 15 debate): Sure I do. It never became law, as you know. It got tied up. It was a bill that had some things I agreed with and other things I didn't agree with. I was happy it never became law. I opposed the 2005 bill as well.


"I Was the One"

Yes, there was another candidate in this debate. He got a couple of good swipes in at his adversaries, but we haven't addressed them here because they were mostly accurate. But former Sen. John Edwards echoed a misleading claim he made in a TV spot we criticized earlier, choosing his words only somewhat more carefully this time. He said, "The last time I saw one of [CNN's] polls that had all three of us against John McCain, I was the one that beat John McCain everywhere in America." That's literally true, but still misleading.

Actually, the most recent CNN poll, released 10 days ago, shows both Obama and Hillary beating McCain in a hypothetical head-to-head matchup. Edwards was not in that poll. The one he refers to, which "had all three of us" matched against McCain, is from early December. In that one, Edwards was indeed the only one of the three who was ahead of McCain, though Obama did tie him. That, of course, was long before a single vote was cast in a caucus or primary.

–by Viveca Novak, with Brooks Jackson, Justin Bank, Joe Miller and Lori Robertson

Clarification, Jan. 24: In the "Borrowed Time" section, we originally included part of Clinton's remarks that may have confused readers. The story now includes a clearer quote from Clinton. She voted for the amendment to limit the interest rate on credit to 30 percent. Obama voted against it.


Gonzales, Nathan. "The Ever-'Present' Obama; Barack has a long track record of not taking a stand." Wall Street Journal, 14 Feb. 2007.


Hernandez, Raymond and Christopher Drew. "It’s Not Just ‘Ayes’ and ‘Nays’: Obama’s Votes in Illinois Echo," 20 Dec. 2007.

Brokaw, Tom. "Boom! Voices of the Sixties." New York: Random House, 2007.

Clinton, Bill. "Remarks by the President at Ronald Reagan Building Dedication." 5 May 1998. The White House, 22 January 2008.

Obama, Barack. Afternoon with Barack Obama, video by James Ball. 14 Jan. 2008.

Dorning, Mike and Christi Parsons. "Carefully crafting the Obama ‘brand’." Chicago Tribune, 12 June 2007.

Dayton, Mark. Comments on Senate floor, 2 March 2005.

U.S. Government Accountability Office. "Credit Cards: Increased Complexity in Rates and Fees Heightens Need for More Effective Disclosures to Consumers," Sept. 2006.

Barbaro, Michael. "As a Director, Clinton Moved Wal-Mart Board, but Only So Far." The New York Times. 20 May 2007.

Fouhy, Beth. "Clinton feels heat over Wal-Mart ties." The Associated Press, 12 March 2006.

Drew, Christopher, and Mike McIntire. "An Obama Patron and Friend Until an Indictment." The New York Times, 14 June 2007.

Novak, Tim. "Obama and his Rezko ties." Chicago Sun-Times, 23 April 2007.

MacFarquhar, Larissa. "The Conciliator." The New Yorker, 7 May 2007.