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Cleveland Clinkers

Clinton and Obama hit sour notes in the Cleveland debate.


The Clinton-Obama showdown debate in Cleveland produced several false, twisted or dubious claims, most of which we’ve heard and debunked before.

  • Both Obama and Clinton claimed their health care plans would cut costs more than the other’s, and that experts back them up on that. But experts we talked to said the plans are too similar to predict which would save more, and two experts said neither plan can save nearly as much as the candidates claim.
  • Both Obama and Clinton twisted the other’s words about support for the North American Free Trade Agreement, again. In fact, the candidates have practically identical positions. They both said during the debate that they would threaten to withdraw from NAFTA unless Mexico and Canada agree to new and tougher terms.
  • Clinton said Obama once "basically threatened to bomb Pakistan," a distortion of his statement that he’d unilaterally "take out" al Qaeda leadership there if Pakistan wouldn’t act. And that’s just what the U.S. did earlier this month, according to news reports quoting official sources.
  • Obama twisted the words of Republican John McCain, saying he has suggested "war" might "go on for another 100 years." McCain expressly said otherwise. He said a 100-year presence would be acceptable in the absence of violence against U.S. troops, and later said "the war will be over soon."


Sens. Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama faced off once again in a debate, this time at Cleveland State University. It was broadcast live on MSNBC and was the last scheduled meeting between the two Democratic front-runners before the possibly decisive primaries to be held Tuesday, March 4 in Ohio, Texas, Rhode Island and Vermont.

Inflated Health Care Claims

Both candidates made dubious and conflicting claims about what their health care plans would do to reduce the cost of health care, and both claimed that experts back them up:

Obama: And we do more to reduce costs than any other plan that’s been out there.

Clinton: I have the most aggressive measures to reduce costs and improve quality. And time and time again, people who have compared our two approaches have concluded that.

Obama: I mean, it is just not accurate to say that Senator Clinton does more to control costs than mine. That is not the case. There are many experts who have concluded that she does not.

Of course, they can’t both be right. And in fact, experts we consulted said there is little to choose between the two plans, and that neither is likely to produce the big savings that the candidates claim.

Massachusetts Institute of Technology economics professor Jonathan Gruber told FactCheck.org, “There is absolutely no evidence to suggest which candidate’s plan would be better at cutting costs. … They both have a great set of ideas and I heartily endorse what they proposed. But there’s very little evidence to suggest that either would make a major dent in health care costs and certainly no evidence as to one person’s plan is better than another’s."

John Sheils, senior vice president of the health care research organization The Lewin Group, also says both candidates are being unrealistic about how much their proposed measures will do to reduce costs. "I don’t think anyone seriously expects that they would start generating those savings," he told us.

Kenneth E. Thorpe, professor of health policy at Emory University, is one expert who believes either candidate could achieve substantial cost savings with their plans. But he also told us they are “virtually identical” on big-picture cost-reduction issues like chronic disease management and electronic health records, so neither candidate is justified in claiming theirs is superior in that regard.

Other Health Care Bobbles

Obama misquoted former Labor Secretary Robert Reich again:

Obama: Clinton’s own secretary of labor has said that my plan does more to reduce costs.

As we said on Feb 15 and repeated on Feb. 22, Reich didn’t say that Obama’s plan does more to cut costs. He said in his blog on Dec. 3, 2007, that Obama’s plan "puts more money up front," but on Jan. 13 he amended that, saying all Democratic plans "spend nearly an identical amount of money." He drew no conclusion in either article about the relative merits of the overall cost-cutting proposals of the two candidates.

Also, Obama again used an inflated statistic to support his argument that Clinton’s health care plan wouldn’t cover everybody despite inclusion of a personal mandate requiring individuals to obtain coverage.

Obama: If it was not affordable, she would still presumably force them to have it, unless there is a hardship exemption as they’ve done in Massachusetts, which leaves 20 percent of the uninsured out.

Actually, as we noted the last time Obama used this figure, state officials believe they exempted roughly 15 percent of the uninsured, not 20 percent. They now believe there were more persons without insurance than they had originally estimated, so the percent that have been exempted may turn out to be even lower than that.


Obama again accused Clinton of being a supporter of the North American Free Trade Agreement, and she said she wasn’t. Both were being misleading.

Clinton: You know, I have been a critic of NAFTA from the very beginning. I didn’t have a public position on it, because I was part of the administration, but when I started running for the Senate, I have been a critic. I’ve said it was flawed.

Obama: Well, I think that it is inaccurate for Senator Clinton to say that she’s always opposed NAFTA. In her campaign for Senate, she said that NAFTA, on balance, had been good for New York and good for America.

We’ve been over this in detail in two recent articles, on Feb. 24 (updated on Feb. 26 with additional information) and on Feb. 25. So we’ll just summarize briefly here.

Both candidates have positions on NAFTA that are practically indistinguishable. Both stated, when questioned during the debate, that they would threaten to withdraw from NAFTA unless Mexico and Canada agree to negotiate better terms. Both have expressed general support for free trade and its economic benefits, and both have said that NAFTA is a flawed agreement that needs to be renegotiated and, in the meantime, better enforced. Both have sent mailings to Ohio voters that use selective quotes (and in the case of an Obama mailer, a false quote) in an attempt to paint their opponent falsely as a NAFTA cheerleader. Both did it again during the debate.

Clinton was correct to say that she had been "a critic" of NAFTA during her time as first lady, at least according to her biographers. But that was in private; publicly she expressed qualified support for the trade deal, and she didn’t publicly criticize it until after leaving the White House.

Obama was also correct, but only up to a point, in quoting Clinton as saying something positive about NAFTA even long after the Clinton administration was over. She did say at a 2004 news teleconference that "I think on balance NAFTA has been good for New York and good for America," which by the way is what many economists also say. What Obama left out, as we noted before, is that Clinton also said at the same event that "I’ve always thought" that past trade deals should be revisited, that "I think that we need a re-thinking of our trade policies,"  that "we have a really important stake in trying to make sure that labor and environmental standards become global," and that "I think we have to enforce the trade rules that are inherent in both NAFTA and GATT."

Bombs Away!

Clinton claimed, "Last summer [Obama] basically threatened to bomb Pakistan." Obama denied that: "I never said I would bomb Pakistan."

He’s right. What he really said on Aug. 1, 2007, was this: "It was a terrible mistake to fail to act when we had a chance to take out an al Qaeda leadership meeting in 2005. If we have actionable intelligence about high-value terrorist targets and President Musharraf won’t act, we will."

Furthermore, as Obama also noted, that’s pretty much what the U.S. did recently. On Feb. 1, several news organizations quoted official sources saying that a CIA airstrike in Pakistan killed Abu Laith al-Libi, who once was 4th on the "most wanted" list of a military anti-terrorism task force. The strike, incidentally, was by a remote-controlled Predator drone using missiles, not by crewed bombers.

Obama’s War Flip-Flop?

Clinton claimed that in 2004 Obama "was saying that he basically agreed with the way George Bush was conducting the war."

She is referencing a July 27, 2004, quote in the Chicago Tribune, in which Obama did indeed say of the Iraq war that "[t]here’s not much of a difference between my position and George Bush’s position at this stage" (our emphasis). But Clinton quoted him selectively. In that same interview, Obama also reiterated that he would not have voted for the war, and he offered serious criticism of Bush’s handling of it, saying, "I don’t see them having the credibility to be able to execute." And in a New York Times interview given the day before, Obama said that "from my vantage point, the case was not made" for the war, and he rebuked Democratic leaders for "the degree to which Congress gave the president a pass" on proving the case for the war.

As Clinton herself pointed out during the debate, the two candidates have identical voting records on the war since they both have been in the Senate. Furthermore, Obama’s views about how to conduct the war are not significantly different from hers, and they have proposed very similar plans for ending it.

About That 100-year "War"

Obama twisted the words of John McCain, the likely Republican nominee:

Obama: We are bogged down in a war that John McCain now suggests might go on for another 100 years.

Actually, McCain suggested no such thing. Obama is referring to a statement that McCain made at a New Hampshire town hall meeting on Jan. 3. As we said before when the Democratic National Committee made a similar statement about McCain, the Arizona senator said that he would be "fine" staying in Iraq for 100 years "as long as Americans are not being injured or harmed or wounded or killed." You can view the whole exchange below:

Furthermore, McCain elaborated on that statement at a campaign event in Ohio, saying the "war" will end "soon":

McCain, Feb. 25: My friends, the war will be over soon. The war for all intents and purposes, although the insurgency will go on for years and years and years, but it’ll be handled by the Iraqis not by us.

Obama was more careful in the previous Democratic debate on Feb. 21, when he stated – accurately – that McCain "has said that he is willing to have these troops over there for 100 years."

– by Brooks Jackson, with Jess Henig, Emi Kolawole, Joe Miller and Lori Robertson


Benson, Pam et. al. "U.S. Officials: CIA kills top al Qaeda terrorist in Pakistan." CNN, 1 Feb. 2008.

Aigner-Treworgy, Adam. "McCain: War "Will Be Over Soon." 25 February 2008. MSNBC, 27 February 2008.

FDCH Political Transcripts. "U.S. Senator Hillary Rodham Clinton (D-NY) Holds a News Teleconference on Job Training Fund Cuts," 5 Jan. 2004.

Hornbeck, J. F. “NAFTA at Ten: Lessons from Recent Studies.” Congressional Research Service, 13 Feb. 2004.

Kumar, Anil. “Did NAFTA Spur Texas Exports?” Southwest Economy, Federal Reserve Bank of Dallas, March/April 2006

Reich, Robert. “Why is HRC stooping So Low?” Robert Reich’s Blog, 3 Dec. 2007.

Reich, Robert. “Democrats Should Stop Squabbling Over Healthcare Mandates.” Robert Reich’s Blog, 13 Jan. 2008.

Kass, John. "Obama’s a Star Who Doesn’t Stick to the Script."  27 July 2004. Chicago Tribune, 27 Feb. 2008.

Davey, Monica. "A Surprise Senate Contender Reaches His Biggest Stage Yet." 26 July 2004. New York Times, 27 Feb 2008.