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A Project of The Annenberg Public Policy Center

Clinton-Obama Pillow Fight

The Democratic front-runners meet in a civil and mostly error-free debate.


The most recent Obama-Clinton debate drew little blood, but we noted a few factual claims that could use correcting or clarifying:

  • Clinton wrongly implied that Obama had little or no accomplishments to his credit. Obama recited a list of achievements at both the state and federal level, which we found to be accurate.
  • Obama used an outdated and probably inflated figure to support his argument that Clinton’s "mandated" health care plan would exempt a large number who currently lack insurance.
  • Obama falsely claimed, again, that Bill Clinton’s labor secretary said his health care plan reduced costs more than his opponent’s.
  • Obama said Clinton had described his own plan as "universal" when he was down in the polls, before he became a threat. He’s right; she did.
  • Obama said "we have seen hate crimes skyrocket" because of the immigration debate. Actually, FBI figures show a 10.3 percent increase in anti-Hispanic incidents, and the most recent number is lower than it was in 2001.
  • Clinton said children of illegal immigrants, and even babies, have been left "with no one to take care of them" after workplace raids by immigration officials. But officials say news accounts have been overblown, and an independent report says persons apprehended in raids sometimes failed to tell officials about their children even when questioned.


Sens. Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama met Feb. 21 at the University of Texas in Austin, their next-to-last scheduled meeting prior to the March 4 primaries in Texas, Ohio, Vermont and Rhode Island. The event was broadcast live on CNN, and a Spanish translation was later broadcast on Univision.

Although delegate-rich Texas and Ohio have become must-win states for Clinton, she did not launch any new criticisms of Obama, and both candidates were polite and mostly positive throughout the event. We found very few factual claims to criticize.

Style over Substance?

Continuing a theme from recent weeks, Clinton again implied that Obama is better at talking about change than he is at producing substantive results:

Clinton: I was somewhat amused the other night when on one of the TV shows, one of Senator Obama’s supporters was asked to name one accomplishment of Senator Obama, and he couldn’t. So I know that there are comparisons and contrasts to be drawn between us, and it’s important that voters get that information.

Obama fired right back with a list of accomplishments:

Obama: Well, I think actions do speak louder than words, which is why over the 20 years of my public service I have acted a lot to provide health care to people who didn’t have it, to provide tax breaks to families that needed it, to reform a criminal justice system that had resulted in wrongful convictions, to open up our government, and to pass the toughest ethics reform legislation since Watergate to make sure that we create transparency. … You know, I think if you talk to those wounded warriors at Walter Reed who, prior to me getting to the Senate, were having to pay for their meals and have to pay for their phone calls to their family while they’re recovering from amputations, I think they’d say that I’ve engaged not just in talk, but in action. 

Clinton is referring to Texas state Sen. Kirk Watson, who completely whiffed when Hardball’s Chris Matthews threw him a softball question. But Clinton is wrong to suggest that Watson’s inability to answer means that Obama lacks substantive accomplishments. In fact, Obama sponsored more than 800 bills during his eight years as an Illinois state senator. And his U.S. Senate career, while brief, has been action-packed.

As for Obama’s list of his accomplishments, he’s right on every count. A Washington Post editorial credited Obama for helping to create "the strongest ethics legislation to emerge from Congress yet," and the Coburn-Obama Act created a new Web site, USAspending.gov, which allows anyone to see where federal contracting and grant money is being spent. Moreover, it was an Obama-sponsored amendment that ended Walter Reed’s practice of requiring outpatient military personnel to pay for their own meals. And as a state senator in Illinois, Obama championed a bill requiring the police to videotape prisoner interrogations. Although initially controversial, the measure passed the Senate unanimously; even Republicans conceded that the turnaround was largely Obama’s doing. Finally, while Obama didn’t mention this one, we think it’s worth noting that the Lugar-Obama non-proliferation initiative provided funds for destroying nuclear weapons and for intercepting weapons of mass destruction.

In short, Clinton is wrong to suggest that Obama lacks a substantive legislative record.

Massachusetts’ Mandate

Obama relied on an outdated and possibly inflated newspaper figure as he argued that Clinton’s proposal to require individuals to buy health insurance won’t necessarily result in more persons having coverage than his own plan, which lacks such a personal mandate. We also find his comments in need of context and explanation.

Obama: Now, Massachusetts has a mandate right now. They have exempted 20 percent of the uninsured because they’ve concluded that that 20 percent can’t afford it. In some cases, there are people who are paying fines and still can’t afford it, so now they’re worse off than they were. They don’t have health insurance and they’re paying a fine.

That 20 percent figure comes from an April 2007 Boston Globe article. It referred to a decision of the Commonwealth Connector, the agency implementing the state’s plan, to exempt about 60,000 people with incomes that were low, but not low enough to qualify for state subsidized health insurance.

There are a number of problems, however, with that figure. First, the Connector’s spokesman says the agency itself never used the 20 percent figure. Second, the 60,000 who were exempt would have been about 15 percent, not 20 percent, of the number the state then estimated were uninsured before the plan took effect. And third, it could be an even lower percentage figure – somewhere between 9 percent and 15 percent – because state officials now believe many more persons than they realized were uninsured at the time of their decision. Connector spokesman Dick Powers says officials believe the true figure lies somewhere between 395,000 (the estimate of the Massachusetts Division of Health Care Finance Policy)  and 650,000 (which was the U.S. Census Bureau’s estimate). The reason the Connector has come to doubt the previous state estimates is that many more individuals have signed up for health care, including subsidized care, than state officials expected.

In short, state officials aren’t sure what percentage of the uninsured they have exempted, but it is certainly less than 20 percent and possibly half that or less. Powers says the Connector calculated that 60,000 figure about six months ago and needs to do so again. That figure may have changed as well.

Worth noting is that leaving out 60,000 people in a state with a population of 6.4 million is about the best that officials had hoped to achieve with an individual mandate. Powers says the Connector hoped to cover 98 percent to 99 percent of the state’s population. If those numbers turn out to be correct – and at this point, the Connector doesn’t know what the final figures will be – the plan will have achieved the level of coverage experts estimate for plans with a mandate.

As for the affordability question, there may well be some people who feel they "still can’t afford" health insurance but are required to get it, as Obama said. The Connector has calculated affordability levels based on income, age and the area in which a person lives. If someone can’t get health insurance for the price the Connector deems that person can afford, that person is exempt. Those earning up to 300 percent of the federal poverty level get subsidized or free health care; residents can also apply for a hardship waiver. We’ll let you be the judge as to whether such criteria are fair.

Also, Obama says that people "are paying fines." But few, if any, have written a check yet. The penalty for tax year 2007 for not having insurance was the loss of the personal income tax deduction (a value of about $219 for an individual). When residents file tax returns for 2008, the penalty will be steeper. That fine is half the cost of the cheapest plan available through the Connector. A person making more than $30,636 a year would pay $76 a month for the penalty, or $912 if uninsured for the entire year.

Overall, it may still be too early to issue a verdict on the success of the Massachusetts health care plan. There have been difficulties, especially with the budget. The Connector admits that the fiscal year 2009 budget for subsidized care will be $144 million more than what was originally projected, and the increase in total funding may be much higher.

More than 300,000 people have signed up for health care coverage, including 169,000 who are getting subsidized insurance. Powers says, "It took three years to pass this law in Massachusetts, and we think it will take at least that long to get most people signed up." The Connector began implementing the plan in mid-2006.

Obama also claimed that "Senator Clinton has said that we will go after their wages," as the enforcement mechanism for the individual mandate in her plan. Technically, she said that garnishing wages was a possibility, but she has not specified what penalty she would use.

He Didn’t Say That

Obama also was off base, again, when he said this:

Obama: And as has been noted by many observers, including Bill Clinton’s former secretary of labor, my plan does more than anybody to reduce costs, and there is nobody out there who wants health insurance who can’t have it.

As we said previously, President Clinton’s labor secretary, Robert Reich, didn’t say that Obama’s plan does more to cut costs. Those are claims made by the Obama campaign. Reich did say in his blog on Dec. 3 that Obama’s plan "puts more money up front," but on Jan. 13, he said all Democratic plans "spend nearly an identical amount of money."

What Is the Meaning of "Universal"?

Obama was correct when he said Clinton had previously praised his own plan as "universal" before starting to denounce it.

Obama: When I released my plan, a few months later, we were in a debate, and Senator Clinton said, we all want universal health care. And of course, I was down 20 points in the polls at the time, and so my plan was pretty good. It’s not as good now, but my plan hasn’t changed. The politics have changed a little bit.

Obama is referring to a statement Clinton made during the YearlyKos Debate on Aug. 4, 2007. During that debate, Clinton said, "I think it’s great that the Democratic candidates before you – we are all in favor of universal health care." At the time, a Rasmussen poll taken from August 8-12 had Obama 20 points behind Clinton nationally, and a USA Today/Gallup poll taken August 3-5 had Obama trailing Clinton by 23 points.

Obama’s "Skyrocket" Dud
However, Obama was being overly dramatic when he said, "we have seen hate crimes skyrocket in the wake of the immigration debate."

That’s saying a bit much. When we asked his campaign for documentation, they pointed us to the most recent FBI statistics, which actually show that the number of incidents classified officially as "hate crimes" went up 7.8 percent in 2006. (Figures for 2007, which would show what occurred during and after the highly charged debate on the House and Senate immigration bills last year, won’t be available until much later in 2008.)

We think a 7.8 percent increase hardly qualifies as a "skyrocket." Looking only at the incidents in which Hispanics were targeted, "hate crimes" rose a bit more, 10.3 percent, but that’s hardly a rocket-propelled rise either. Furthermore, the number of  anti-Hispanic incidents fluctuates widely from year to year. During the last 11 years, the number of incidents nationwide has bounced around between a low of 426 in 2003 and a high of 597 in 2001, according to the FBI Uniform Crime Reports. It was 576 in 2006.

Baby Abuse?

Clinton painted a harsh picture of immigration raids that we think could use a bit of context:

Clinton: [L]iterally babies [are] being left with no one to take care of them, children coming home from school, no responsible adult left – that is not the America that I know.  

It is true that children have sometimes suffered as Immigration and Customs Enforcement has stepped up workplace raids. There were three such raids in 2007 in Greeley, Colorado; Grand Island, Nebraska; and New Bedford, Massachusetts, in which the Urban Institute documented several instances of children being left behind as their immigrant parents were processed. However, ICE maintains that officials tried hard to avoid this sort of thing. After news accounts said "hundreds" of children were left without adequate care following last year’s New Bedford raid, for example, ICE said it had taken "extraordinary care to determine if any of the arrestees were sole caregivers," had set up a 24-hour hotline for family members, and had granted quick, conditional, "humanitarian" release to 60 of those detained. It also said that state authorities had not identified a single child who ended up in foster care.

The Urban Institute had several recommendations on how ICE could have better figured out who needed to be released. But it also said, "Many arrested immigrants did not disclose to ICE that they had children in the United States."

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

Correction, Feb. 25: We originally said the debate was held at the LBJ Library at the University of Texas in Austin. It was held in a gymnasium on the campus.


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