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A Project of The Annenberg Public Policy Center

Stacking the Deck

Dems deal misleading statements in Vegas debate.


The three leading Democratic presidential candidates debated in Las Vegas and we noted the following:

  • Clinton once again mischaracterized the 2005 energy bill, saying it had "enormous giveaways" to oil and gas companies. In truth, the measure raised taxes on those industries.
  • Obama accused the Bush administration of failing to make "any serious effort" to encourage use of alternative fuels or raise fuel efficiency of automobiles. In fact, President Bush has signed major bills that do both.
  • Edwards said he dropped his support for the Yucca Mountain nuclear waste storage site in part because of a scandal over forged documents. But he switched his position in 2004, and the scandal came along a year afterward.
  • The three candidates made sweeping claims about their intentions to remove troops from Iraq quickly, but all three admitted under questioning that they could have U.S. combat troops fighting in Iraq for years to come.
  • Clinton puffed up her role in stopping the "Bush administration" from taking back signing bonuses from those later wounded too seriously to complete their enlistments. Actually the Pentagon said its policy has been not to reclaim such bonuses and that a bill the Army sent to one soldier was an isolated case that was reversed.
  • Edwards said "you should learn to speak English" before becoming a U.S. citizen. In fact, the law already requires, with few exceptions, that applicants for citizenship "must be able to read, write, speak, and understand words in ordinary usage in the English language."


The debate took place Jan. 15 at the Cashman Center in downtown Las Vegas, with Democratic candidates Hillary Clinton, Barack Obama and John Edwards sitting around a table with moderators Tim Russert and Brian Williams of NBC News. The event was broadcast on MSNBC. An hour before the debate the Nevada Supreme Court ruled that NBC could exclude a fourth candidate, Dennis Kucinich, from the debate. Kucinich had attempted to force NBC to include him after the network withdrew an invitation due to his poor showings in opinion polls and in the Iowa caucuses and New Hampshire primary.

Hillary's Oil Slick, Again

Obama and Clinton dueled over the 2005 energy bill, but Clinton once again painted a false picture of what the measure contained. She continued to repeat her misleading claim that it had "enormous giveaways to the oil and gas industries," when in fact it resulted in a net increase in taxes on oil and gas companies.

Clinton: Well, Tim, I think it's well accepted that the 2005 energy bill was the Dick Cheney lobbyist energy bill. It was written by lobbyists. It was championed by Dick Cheney. It wasn't just the green light that it gave to more nuclear power. It had enormous giveaways to the oil and gas industries. … It was the wrong policy for America. It was so heavily tilted toward the special interests that many of us, at the time, said, you know, that's not going to move us on the path we need, which is toward clean, renewable green energy.

This is the third time we've pointed out Clinton's distortion of this legislation. She is continuing a bogus line of attack that we debunked when Democrats deployed it widely in the 2006 congressional elections. While it's true that Republican lawmakers had once considered large tax breaks for oil and gas companies in the bill, the biggest of them had been stripped out of the bill by the time it passed.

Once again, it’s true that the Energy Policy Act of 2005 contained $14.3 billion in tax breaks, but most of them weren't for the oil and gas industry. They went mainly to electric utilities for such things as incentives for new transmission lines and "clean coal" facilities, and also for incentives for alternative fuels research and subsidies for energy efficient cars and homes.

According to the nonpartisan Congressional Research Service, the bill did give $2.6 billion in tax breaks for oil companies, but what Clinton fails to acknowledge is that those breaks were more than offset by $2.9 billion in tax increases. The net result was a $300 million tax increase over 11 years on oil and gas companies.

Obama was closer to the truth when he said the 2005 bill (which he supported) was "the largest investment in clean energy … that we had ever seen."

Obama: Well, the reason I voted for it [the 2005 energy bill] was because it was the single largest investment in clean energy – solar, wind, biodiesel – that we had ever seen. And I think it is – we talked about this earlier – if we are going to deal with our dependence on foreign oil, then we're going to have to ramp up how we're producing energy here in the United States.

We don't know offhand whether there have been bigger tax breaks for clean energy in the past, but the 2005 bill certainly contained a lot of incentives aimed at clean energy and conservation. At the time the bill was being considered, the nonpartisan Joint Committee on Taxation estimated that it included $1.6 billion for "clean coal" facilities and $1.3 billion in incentives for alternative fuels such as biodiesel and incentives for buying alternative vehicles in the form of a tax credit. The bill also contained just under $1.3 billion for energy conservation incentives, including tax credits for homeowners who install certain energy-saving equipment or businesses that install stationary microturbine power plants.

Obama's Energy Contradiction

Obama later contradicted himself, saying the Bush administration had done nothing serious about alternative fuels or raising fuel efficiency:

Obama: One thing I note is folks have got a lot of sun here, and yet we have not seen any serious effort on the part of this administration to spur on the use of alternative fuels, raise fuel efficiency standards on cars.

If the 2005 energy bill signed by President Bush was indeed the "single largest investment in clean energy" ever seen, as Obama says, then it's hard to see how his administration can be faulted for lack of "any serious effort" to promote alternative fuels. Furthermore, another bill Bush signed in December sets a national fuel economy standard of 35 miles per gallon by 2020, the first major increase in vehicle fuel efficiency standards in more than three decades. The National Environmental Trust called it "an extraordinary change from just a little while ago."

It is certainly true that more could be done, and Obama would be within his rights to say that Bush's efforts aren't serious enough to suit him. But claiming a lack of any serious effort at all is contradicted by the record and by Obama's own words.

Edwards' Weak Alibi
Edwards said he had changed his position on a proposed nuclear waste site at Nevada’s Yucca Mountain because of allegations of forged documents. In response to a charge from Clinton that he voted twice in favor of making Yucca a nuclear waste site, Edwards said:

Edwards: I said the science that has been revealed since that time and the forged documents that have been revealed since that time have made it very – this has been for years, Hillary. This didn't start last year or three years ago. I've said this for years now – have revealed that this thing does not make sense, is not good for the people of Nevada, and it's not good for America.

Actually, Edwards had changed his position when he signed on as the 2004 running mate of presidential candidate John Kerry, who was opposed to the nuclear repository. That was long before the documents scandal erupted in March 2005.

For example, a New York Times report in August 2004 quoted Nevada Sen. Harry Reid, a Yucca foe, as saying Edwards had called him to say he was "on the Yucca mountain bandwagon" after Kerry tapped him as his running mate. Mark Kornblau, Edwards' spokesman also said: ''John Kerry has very clearly stated that his administration will oppose the storage of dangerous nuclear waste at Yucca Mountain and John Edwards is very comfortable with that policy.''

But it was not until 2005 that the Energy Department made public e-mails between scientists with the U.S. Geological Survey suggesting that data had been falsified. The scientists were looking into one of the major safety and environmental concerns, the issue of ground water in the desert.

Iraqi Theater

Once again, the candidates all made sweeping claims about their plans to withdraw troops from Iraq. Obama and Edwards promised to "get our troops out" by the end of 2009, while Clinton promised to begin withdrawing troops within 60 days and promised to have "nearly all the troops out" by the end of 2009. But under questioning, all three conceded that troops could be in Iraq for years:

Obama: I will end the war as we understand it in combat missions. But that we are going to have to protect our embassy. We're going to have to protect our civilians. We're engaged in humanitarian activity there. We are going to have to have some presence that allows us to strike if al Qaeda is creating bases inside of Iraq.

Clinton: Well, I think that what Barack is what John and I also meant at that same time, because, obviously, we have to be responsible, we have to protect our embassy, we do need to make sure that, you know, our strategic interests are taken care of.

Edwards: I just want to say, it is dishonest to suggest that you're not going to have troops there to protect the embassy. That's just not the truth. It may be great political theater and political rhetoric, but it's not the truth.

As far as we can tell, there isn't much daylight between the Iraq policies of Clinton, Edwards and Obama. The biggest difference we noticed: Edwards would station some combat troops in Kuwait and bring them into Iraq whenever they were needed to counter terrorist activity. Clinton and Obama would keep about the same number of troops for precisely the same mission, but they would station those troops in Iraq. We leave it to our readers to determine how significant that difference is.

There is a distinction between combat troops and embassy guards. But the candidates drew this distinction only when pressed. The fact is all of them would have Americans in uniform stationed in Iraq indefinitely, and all of them leave open the possibility that U.S. combat troops will be fighting limited engagements in Iraq for years, whether they are stationed in Iraq or Kuwait. That leaves us agreeing with Edwards: There was definitely some political theater going on.

Clinton’s Brave Stand for Troops

Clinton bragged about her role in protecting wounded soldiers from penny-pinching bureaucrats at the Pentagon, but she claimed too much credit for herself and unfairly laid blame on the president.

Clinton: You know, Tim, the Bush administration sends mixed messages. They want to recruit and retain these young people to serve our country and then they have the Pentagon trying to take away the signing bonuses when a soldier gets wounded and ends up in the hospital, something that I'm working with a Republican senator to try to make sure never can happen again.

Clinton is referring here to bonuses that the military gives out to new and returning enlistees. Although most bonuses are paid in installments over the term of the enlistment, some enlistees (depending upon their specialty and their time in service) are paid the entire bonus up front. In November, a Pittsburgh television station reported that Jordan Fox received a letter directing him to return part of his signing bonus when he was medically discharged after being seriously wounded in Iraq.

Clinton is wrong to blame "the Bush administration" for a policy of requiring soldiers like Fox to return enlistment bonuses. No such policy exists. It is true that the military does attempt to “recoup” bonuses, but, according to the Department of Defense, "Department policy prohibits recoupment when it would be contrary to equity and good conscience, or would be contrary to the nation's interests," circumstances that include, "an inability to complete a service agreement because of illness, injury, disability, or other impairment that did not clearly result from misconduct." In other words, according to DoD policy, Fox should never have received the letter he did.

Clinton did in fact cosponsor the "Restoring Guaranteed Bonuses for Wounded Veterans Act of 2007." That bill passed unanimously, and it requires the Department of Defense to pay full enlistment bonuses for soldiers who are medically discharged. In other words, the act directed the DoD to follow the policy it already had in place. Clinton wrote legislation putting into law a policy that already existed, and she pushed it through a Senate where no one was opposed to the measure.

Edwards' False Implication About Immigrants
Edwards falsely implied that immigrants generally can become citizens without being required to learn English.

Edwards: I think if you want to become an American citizen and earn American citizenship, you should learn to speak English.

Actually, according to U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services, applicants who wish to become naturalized U.S. citizens already "must be able to read, write, speak, and understand words in ordinary usage in the English language." The only exceptions are for those with physical or mental impairments, those who have been legal residents for 15 years and have reached age 55, or who have been legal residents for 20 years and have reached age 50.

Edwards is echoing a Republican line here in appealing to anti-immigrant sentiment. We chastised former New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani last August for similarly implying that an English requirement was necessary.

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


Congressional Research Service. Oil and Gas Tax Subsidies: Current Status and Analysis. Washington: GPO, 2007.

Griffin, Marty. "Wounded Soldier: Military Wants Part Of Bonus Back." 19 November 2007. KDKA.com. 16 January 2008.

Baker, Fred W. III. "Defense Department Outlines Recoupment Policies." 29 November 2007. U.S. Department of Defense. 16 January 2008.

Library of Congress. S.2400. 17 December 2007. 16 January 2008.

Joint Committee on Taxation, "ESTIMATED BUDGET EFFECTS OF THE CONFERENCE AGREEMENT FOR TITLE XIII. OF H.R. 6, Fiscal Years 2005 – 2015" 27 July 2005.

Steve Hargreaves, "Bush signs energy bill" CNNMoney.com 19 Dec 2007.

U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services, "General Naturalization Requirements," accessed 16 Jan 2008.

"How Military Bonuses Are Paid." Military.com. 16 January 2008.

Wilgoren, Jodi. "Kerry Criticizes U.S. Plan to Send Nuclear Waste to Nevada," The New York Times, 11 Aug. 2004.

Werner, Erica. "House committee to subpoena worker in Yucca Mountain investigation." The Associated Press, 13 June 2005.

Geiselman, Bruce. "Yucca fake-doc details emerge; Federal, Nev. officials lay out their cases in House hearing." Waste News. 11 Apr. 2005.