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N.H. Debate: The Dems’ Turn

When the going gets tough, the tough get misleading.


During the Democratic portion of the Jan. 5 New Hampshire debate:

  • Obama claimed we are "back where we started two years ago" in Iraq. Actually, all indicators of violence show dramatic improvement compared with two years ago.
  • Clinton repeated a misleading claim that the 2005 energy bill was "larded with all kinds of special interest breaks" for the oil industry. Actually, the bill resulted in a net increase in taxes on the oil industry, according to the nonpartisan Congressional Research Service.
  • Obama stated that U.S. medical care costs "twice as much per capita as any other advanced nation," which is incorrect. U.S. spending is double the average, but not double that of all others.
  • Clinton said there is no reason that U.S. troops should be in Iraq "beyond today," but she has also conceded that she might keep combat troops fighting there for years.

In the analysis section we note further misstatements and twisted facts, and we find that Clinton was close to the mark when she criticized Obama for shifting positions on the USA Patriot Act.


The Democratic debate took place on the same stage at Saint Anselm College in New Hampshire as the just-completed Republican version and had the same moderators: ABC’s Charles Gibson and WMUR’s Scott Spradling. There were only four participants: Sens. Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama, former Sen. John Edwards, and New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson.

Improvement in Iraq

Obama vastly understated the improvement in the security situation in Iraq when he said:

Obama: We saw a spike in the violence, the surge reduced that violence, and we now are, two years later, back where we started two years ago. We have gone full circle at enormous cost to the American people.

There was indeed a spike in the violence in Iraq during the last two years that has been receding as of late. Most recently, nearly all statistical indicators show that violence is sharply lower than it was two years ago, according to the Brookings Institution’s Iraq Index.

Clinton’s Oily Charge

Clinton repeated a bit of recycled bunk about tax cuts for the oil industry.

Clinton: You know, the energy bill that passed in 2005 was larded with all kinds of special interest breaks, giveaways to the oil companies. Senator Obama voted for it. I did not because I knew that it was going to be an absolute nightmare. Now we’re all out on the campaign trail talking about taking the tax subsidies away from the oil companies, some of which were in that 2005 energy bill.

We’ve called Clinton on this once before. It’s true that the Energy Policy Act of 2005 contained $14.3 billion in tax breaks, but most of those breaks were for electric utilities, nuclear power plants, alternative fuels research and subsidies for energy efficient cars and homes. In fact, according to the nonpartisan Congressional Research Service, the $2.6 billion in tax breaks for oil companies was offset by $2.9 billion in tax increases. The net was a $300 million tax increase over 11 years.

Double the Health Spending? Not Quite.

Obama repeated an old chestnut about health care costs:

Obama: Our medical care costs twice as much per capita as any other advanced nation.

This is an exaggeration. The United States does spend nearly twice as much on average as most developed nations, but it is inaccurate to say that it spends twice as much as “any other.” In a 2007 Kaiser Family Foundation report comparing the health care spending of Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development member countries, the United States came in first at $5,711 per capita. But Luxembourg spent $4,611, only $1,100 less per capita than the U.S. The next biggest spender, Switzerland, spent $3,874, also far more than half of U.S. spending. France’s per capita spending was $3,048, still more than half of the costs in this country. KFF noted, however, that the United States’ spending was “over 90% higher than in many other countries that we would consider global competitors.”

Bring the Troops Home. Now. Sort Of.

Clinton said she sees no reason U.S. troops should remain in Iraq "beyond today," but she also has said U.S. troops could remain in some combat roles in Iraq for several years.

Clinton: So it’s time to bring our troops home and to bring them home as quickly and responsibly as possible and unfortunately, I don’t see any reason why they should remain beyond, you know, today. I think George Bush doesn’t intend to bring them home, but certainly I have said when I’m president I will. Within 60 days, I’ll start that withdrawal.

Clinton manages to say, within just a few sentences, that she’ll start the withdrawal "within 60 days" of becoming president; she doesn’t see why our forces "should remain beyond, you know, today"; and we should "bring them home as quickly and responsibly as possible." What does all this mean? It’s really hard to say.

We noted in September, after a debate in which the candidates were questioned by NBC’s Tim Russert, that Clinton has put a number of caveats on her goal of having the troops out by the end of her first term. And Michael Dobbs, who writes the Washington Post‘s Fact Checker feature, has assembled some of the conditions Clinton has listed that might require a continued troop presence, such as continuing counterterrorism operations, protecting the U.S. embassy, countering Iranian influence, helping the Kurds and training the Iraqis.

We take no position on whether withdrawing the troops immediately, in stages or not at all is the best course. But we do quarrel with simplistic applause lines that mask a much more complicated position, and are thus misleading.

Clinton vs. Obama

Clinton took direct aim at Obama, her chief rival at the moment, by portraying him as a flip-flopper, and she connects fairly solidly:

Clinton: You’ve changed positions within three years on, you know, a range of issues that you put forth when you ran for the Senate and now you have changed. You know, you said you would vote against the Patriot Act; you came to the Senate, you voted for it. You said that you would vote against funding for the Iraq war; you came to the Senate and you voted for $300 billion of it.

Clinton is correct to say that Obama opposed the Patriot Act during his run for the U.S. Senate. She’s relying on a 2003 Illinois National Organization for Women questionnaire in which Obama wrote that he would vote to "repeal the Patriot Act" or replace it with a "new, carefully crafted proposal." As for whether or not he would have voted against it when it was first proposed in 2001, Obama said in October 2004 that he wasn’t sure:

Obama: I like to think that, had I been in the Senate, I would have cast the second vote against the Patriot Act. … But this is how much I admire Russ Feingold: I can’t guarantee it. I say that I would have voted against the Patriot Act. But I wasn’t there in the pressure of that moment – so shortly after Sept. 11 and with anthrax being mailed into Capitol Hill.

(Feingold’s was the lone Senate vote against the USA Patriot Act in 2001.)

When it came time to reauthorize the law in 2005, though, Obama voted in favor of it. He started out opposing it: In December 2005, then-Senate majority leader Bill Frist (R-Tenn.) brought the bill up for a vote, and Obama said on the Senate floor that he would vote against ending debate – a position equivalent to declaring a lack of support for the measure. He followed through and voted against the motion, and the Patriot Act reauthorization bill sat dormant until 2006. Then in February of that year, Obama said on the floor that he would support the Patriot Act’s reauthorization. When Frist brought the bill to the floor again in March 2006, Obama both voted for cloture and for the Patriot Act reauthorization conference report, sending the bill to the president. He also later supported a bill with additional amendments to the Patriot Act, including some civil liberties protections.

Clinton, by the way, followed exactly the same path on the 2005 bill, from speaking in opposition to voting for it.

Clinton vs. Obama, Part II

Update, Jan. 7: We did not include the following section in the story when we posted it last night because we were promised additional information by the Obama campaign. We now have that material and can assess the charge by Clinton.

The second part of Clinton’s quote in the section above, which tars Obama with flip-flopping on the war in Iraq, refers to his position on an $87 billion war funding supplemental bill that came to a vote in 2003. In a speech to the New Trier Democratic Party in Illinois in November of that year, he said he would have voted against it. Specifically, he told the crowd:

Obama: Just this week, when I was asked, would I have voted for the $87 billion dollars, I said "no." I said no unequivocally because, at a certain point, we have to say no to George Bush. If we keep on getting steamrolled, we are not going to stand a chance.

Four years later Obama attempted to add context to his New Trier remarks in this May 2007 interview on ABC’s "This Week," saying he supported $67 billion of the $87 billion since that money was directed to the troops:

George Stephanopoulos: But back in 2003, you were against supplemental funding for the war. You gave a speech where you said I would vote against the $87 billion.

Obama: That is true. … And the reason was because I was trying to establish a principle at that time and I said this at the time that for us to be giving $20 billion in reconstruction dollars in a no-bid process where money could potentially be wasted was a problem. But what I also said at that time was that the 67 billion that was needed for the troops was something that I would gladly vote for and I’ve been consistent in saying that as much as I think this has been if not the biggest then one of the biggest foreign policy blunders in history, I want to make sure that our troops who are on the ground who perform magnificently aren’t caught in the political cross fire in Washington.

It’s true Obama had made the distinction, but we were unable to find any evidence that he made it in his New Trier speech or that it was as detailed as he claims. Neither the Obama campaign nor the New Trier Democrats could provide a transcript. He did make this distinction in an October 2003 NAACP forum, according to this report from The Hyde Park Citizen, a local Illinois paper:

Hyde Park Citizen: Obama said he would put more money toward the troops, but not rebuilding Iraq. "We need to make sure that every dollar that is spent in Iraq is spent at home," he said. "We could have had our allies paying for [their] building process and contributing to the troops."

But Obama has since voted in favor of Iraq war funding, as has Clinton, on at least 14 separate occasions. Those bills have included a number of line-items ranging from funding for Iraqi reconstruction – the type of funding Obama said he would vote against – to unrelated activities such as tsunami relief and Hurricane Katrina recovery.

The Obama campaign argues that Obama’s support for war funding has been contingent on the money being attached to a troop withdrawal timetable. This has been true for a majority of his most recent votes in 2007. But his earlier votes, dating back to 2005, came with no such caveat, and we found only one occasion prior to 2007 when Obama voted against a motion to push forward funding for the war. But that vote was immediately followed by one in favor of the underlying bill.

Score this one for Clinton, though it’s not a home run.

A Billion Here, a Billion There…

During the debate, three of the four Democrats gave different totals for the cost of the Iraq war (Clinton did not proffer a number).

Obama: It has cost us upwards of $1 trillion. It may get close to 2 (trillion dollars).

Richardson: … the $570 billion that we’ve spent on this war.

Edwards: $600 billion dollars and counting.

Richardson was closest when he said the U.S had spent $570 billion, but he was still over by, oh, about $120 billion. According to the Congressional Research Service, spending on the Iraq war through FY 2007 was $448.6 billion. Edwards was farther off when he said $600 billion. That figure is closer to the amount spent on all military operations, including Afghanistan ($608.8 billion) Or the amount that has been requested for Iraq through the next year ($606.9 billion.)

Obama doubled the numbers when he said, "It has cost us upwards of $1 trillion. It may get close to 2 (trillion dollars)." He is most likely citing the work of the Democratic majority’s staff on the Joint Economic Committee that attempted to estimate the "total economic cost" by calculating the "shadow cost" of the war, an estimated figure that accounts for the loss of cash flow, interest and available capital to the American taxpayer.

Ode to the Patient’s Bill of Rights

John Edwards claimed to have been one of three authors of the Patient’s Bill of Rights. Clinton pointed out that it never became law. Everyone said that Bush killed it.

Edwards: What we did – and I didn’t do it alone, don’t claim to have done it alone – but I, Senator McCain who was here earlier, Senator Kennedy, the three of us wrote the Patient’s Bill of Rights, the three of us took on the powerful insurance industry and their lobby every single day of the fight for the Patient’s Bill of Rights and we got that bill through the United States Senate and got it passed.

Clinton: You know, Senator Edwards did work and get the Patient’s Bill of Rights through the Senate; it never got through the House. … We don’t have a Patient’s Bill of Rights.

Edwards: Because George Bush – George Bush killed it.

Clinton: Well, that’s right, he killed it.

Edwards is correct that he was a prime mover behind the bill. And Clinton is right in saying it never became law. But Bush wasn’t the only executioner. The Republican majorities in the House and Senate never entered serious negotiations to resolve differences between the Senate’s bill and the much weaker version that passed the House.

Richardson Recycles

Richardson repeated some of his dubious boasts yet again, and he’s waited long enough on one of them that he’s almost right: "I’ve created 80,000 new jobs. … I’ve insured kids under 12 in my state. I’ve improved education." In fact, New Mexico hasn’t yet seen the 80,000 job gain that Richardson has been boasting of for more than a year, starting at a time when the rise during his term in total nonfarm employment in the state was only 68,100. As we said in August when we first exposed this falsehood, Richardson will eventually be right. But not yet. As of the Bureau of Labor Statistics figures released last week, the state had gained only 79,400 jobs since the month before Richardson took office.

And while it’s true that New Mexico teacher salaries have gone up and some test scores have improved a bit, the reading scores for eighth-grade students have actually fallen since Richardson took office. The state remains near the bottom in all student test categories.

Return to Sender

A couple of statements were so wildly off-base that we’re wondering if the candidates simply made verbal typos. Still, we feel obliged to correct the record. One of these flubs was by Edwards, when he said that he "saw a projection just a week or so ago suggesting that America could lose as many as 20 [million] to 30 million more jobs over the next decade." Maybe he was referring to certain categories of jobs, because the U.S. is expected to have a net gain in jobs overall – almost as many as Edwards says we’ll lose. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, total employment is expected to increase from 150.6 million in 2006 to 166.2 million in 2016, or about 10 percent. Things are somewhat bleaker in the manufacturing industry, where BLS predicts that 1.5 million jobs will be lost by 2016. While bad, that’s actually not as bad as the 3 million manufacturing jobs that BLS says we’ve lost between 1996 and 2006.

Update, Jan. 7: After this article appeared, the Edwards campaign contacted us to give the source for his statement. The senator was referring to a projection by the Economic Policy Institute, a liberal group critical of reduced trade barriers, that between 18 percent and 22 percent of today’s jobs "could potentially be offshored," meaning sent overseas. The report stressed, however, that of these "potentially" lost jobs only a fraction were likely to be lost, in fact. And the report made no attempt to balance lost jobs against those gained in U.S. industries that export goods or services.

The other statement involved Richardson, who said that "there’s been a proliferation of loose nuclear weapons, mainly in the hands of terrorists, that could cross presumably a border." But neither the FBI nor the CIA nor the National Threat Initiative has found evidence that terrorists currently have nuclear weapons.

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

Correction, Jan. 8: In our original article, we incorrectly said that Bill Richardson was mistaken in citing the price of gasoline in New Hampshire. An observant reader alerted us to the fact that Richardson was talking about the price of home heating oil, not gasoline. Richardson was correct to say that home heating oil in the state is at its highest price ever, and in fact costs slightly more than the figure he cited.


Obama at New Trier. 21 Mar. 2007. The Politico (via YouTube). 6 Jan. 2008.

ABC "This Week with George Stephanopoulos" Guest: Barack Obama. 13 May 2007. Transcript. Federal News Service.

Sen. Obama Promised to Support Repealing PATRIOT Act, Then Voted to Extend It. 6 Jan. 2008. Hillary Clinton for President. 6 Jan. 2008

Illinois NOW Questionnaire for Senator Barack Obama. 10 Sept. 2003. Illinois National Organization for Women [via ABC News]. 6 Jan. 2008.

Senate Floor Statement of Senator Barack Obama on the Patriot Act. 15 Dec. 2005. U.S. Senate. 6 Jan. 2008.

Congressional Record pg. S13712

Obama, Barack. Senate Floor Statement of Senator Barack Obama on S. 2271 – USA PATRIOT Act Reauthorization. 16 Feb. 2006. U.S. Senate. 6 Jan. 2008.

Senate Roll Call Vote No. 25

"War at any Price: The total economic costs of the war beyond the Federal Budget," Joint Economic Committee. Prepared by the majority staff. Nov. 2007.

Amy, Belasco. "The Cost of Iraq, Afghanistan, and Other Global War on Terror Operations Since 9/11." Congressional Research Service. 9 Nov. 2007.

Major Executive Speeches: Global Intiative Nuclear Terrorism Conference. 11 June 2007. Federal Bureau of Investigation. 6 Jan. 2008.

The Worldwide Threat in 2003: Evolving Dangers in a Complex World. 11 Feb. 2003. Central Intelligence Agency. 6 Jan. 2008.

Bunn, Matthew. "Securing the Bomb 2007." The Nuclear Threat Initiative (2007): 1-188.

U.S. Energy Information Administration. "Retail Gasoline Prices by Grade by Formulation." EIA Web site, 6 Jan. 2008.

Oil Price Information Service, New Hampshire average. AAA, 6 Jan. 2008.

U.S. Energy Information Administration. "Retail Gasoline Historical Prices." EIA Web site, 6 Jan. 2006.

Jared Bernstein, Lawrence Mishel, James Lin, "Quantifying the Threat of Offshoring." Economic Policy Institute, 14 Nov. 2007.

Chinn, Lesley R. "Eleven Senate Candidates Debate Issues at NAACP." Hyde Park Citizen. 9 Oct. 2003: 44.

Senate Vote 109, 2005

Senate Vote 117, 2005
Senate Vote 252, 2005
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Senate Vote 326, 2005
Senate Vote 364, 2005
Senate Vote 366, 2005
Senate Vote 112, 2006
Senate Vote 171, 2006
Senate Vote 261, 2006
Senate Vote 117, 2007
Senate Vote 125, 2007
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Senate Vote 147, 2007
Senate Vote 172, 2007
Senate Vote 181, 2007