Facebook Twitter Tumblr Close Skip to main content
A Project of The Annenberg Public Policy Center

L.A. Lovefest

Clinton and Obama make an agree-athon of the final Democratic debate.


Clinton and Obama left their recent bitterness behind at the Democratic debate prior to a nationwide series of primaries and caucuses on Feb. 5. They emphasized their areas of agreement and looked more like running mates than rivals for the nomination. By the end, both were ducking a question about whether the other would be their pick for vice president, and afterward they practically embraced in front of the cameras.

Amid all the mutual admiration, however, we still found a few factual missteps:

  • Obama claimed Democratic voter turnout has doubled in "every single election that we've had so far in this [nominating] contest." Not true. It doubled in only two. In New Hampshire the turnout increased by 30 percent.
  • Obama misleadingly said corporate tax loopholes totaled $1 trillion. That figure is an estimate for a 10-year period and includes items such as low-income housing tax credits and tax-free bonds for state and local governments.
  • Obama mischaracterized Clinton's earlier statements on driver's licenses for illegal aliens, saying, "You said you were for it. Then you said you were against it." Actually she avoided giving a yes-or-no answer in one debate, then made clear she opposed the idea.

We also found that Clinton's response to a question about her vote on a key amendment to the Iraq war powers resolution may have left viewers confused, because the question didn't correctly describe what the vote was about. What she voted against was a measure that would have allowed the U.S. to invade Iraq only if authorized by the United Nations Security Council or by a separate vote of the Senate at a later date. Clinton said she opposed that proposal because it could have subordinated U.S. judgments to those of the Security Council.


The last scheduled Democratic debate before the Feb. 5 super Tuesday nominating contest took place in the Kodak Theater in Los Angeles. With the withdrawal of former Sen. John Edwards from the race, only Sens. Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama appeared. They debated side by side, avoiding the sharp bickering that has marked some past meetings, nearly embracing at the end. The two even pointed out the consensus they share on many issues: "Let's take health care," Obama said. "About 95 percent of our plans are similar." Clinton offered: "[T]he differences between Barack and I pale in comparison to the differences that we have with the Republicans." Indeed, what criticisms they made were mainly reserved for President Bush and Sen. John McCain, the Republican front-runner. The event was broadcast nationally on CNN.

Bad Math on Voter Turnout

Obama overstated the rise in Democratic voter turnout:

Obama: And one of the things I'm thrilled with is – and this is good news for Democrats – every single election that we've had so far in this contest, you've seen the number of people participating in the Democratic primary double.

In fact, New Hampshire turnout increased by about 30 percent, which is a remarkable jump but nowhere near "double." South Carolina and Iowa had almost, but not quite, twice the number of Democratic voters this year as they did in 2004. Only Florida and Nevada had at least twice as many primary voters in the 2008 Democratic primary as they had four years ago. Nevada, whose 2004 caucus was much later in the season, actually saw a tenfold increase. Michigan's presidential primary was canceled in 2004, so there is no basis for comparison.

Obama would have been correct to say that nearly all states have seen record voter turnout for their Democratic primaries (Michigan did not). To say that they all have doubled is incorrect.

Obama: Trillion-Dollar Loopholes?

Obama used a misleading figure to show how easily he could pay for his health care plan and proposed tax cuts for the elderly and for persons making under $75,000 a year:

Obama: We've got a trillion dollars worth of corporate tax loopholes and tax havens, and I've said I will close those.

Actually, the Treasury Department estimated last July that eliminating every major corporate tax preference on the books would yield $1.2 trillion – but over a 10-year period, not in a single year. Furthermore, some of the largest amounts came from items such as tax credits to encourage low-income housing ($55 billion), tax-free bonds for state and local governments ($135 billion), employee stock ownership plans ($23 billion) and tax-free interest on life insurance savings ($30 billion). These popular provisions don’t benefit the businesses so much as they do others. We doubt Obama means to end low-income housing credits or force state governments to start paying higher interest rates on their borrowings. He would be more accurate to say, "We’ve got about $120 billion a year worth of corporate tax loopholes, and I’ll close some of those."

Obama Misquotes Clinton

Obama misquoted Clinton from an earlier debate in Philadelphia:

Obama: [In] a debate you said you were for it [granting driver’s permits to illegal immigrants]. Then you said you were against it. And the only reason I bring that up is to underscore the fact that this is a difficult political issue.

As we reported at the time, Clinton actually avoided giving a yes-or-no answer to a question about whether she was for granting permits, as New York Gov. Eliot Spitzer had proposed. Clinton was pretty close to the mark when she corrected Obama: "I said that I would try to support my governor, although I didn't agree with it personally."

Here's what Clinton actually said in the Oct. 30 debate in Philadelphia:


Clinton, Oct. 30, 2007: It makes a lot of sense. What is the governor supposed to do? He is dealing with a serious problem. We have failed, and George Bush has failed. Do I think this is the best thing for any governor to do? No.

That response was to a question about what she had said in an interview she gave to the Nashua Telegraph, and after the debate that newspaper said she was clearly supporting her governor while just as clearly disagreeing with his proposal (which Gov. Spitzer later withdrew in the face of strong criticism). The newspaper even posted a video of the original interview.

Obama: Wrong on Lobbying Money

Obama’s recitation of how much the mortgage lending industry has been spending on lobbying left a definite misimpression:

Obama: The mortgage lending industry spent $185 billion – 105 – 80 – $185 million lobbying to prevent provisions that go against predatory lending, for example, that I introduced.

We asked the Obama campaign where the figure came from, and a staffer pointed us to a Common Cause report. But it turns out the report said that between 1999 and the end of 2006, "ten of the nation's largest mortgage lending companies, their two trade associations, and their corporate parents" spent $187 million lobbying Washington. Obama wasn't even in Congress until 2005, and he and Illinois Democratic Sen. Dick Durbin introduced a bill to rein in the subprime mortgage problem in April 2007.

Levin Amendment Confusion

Clinton was asked why she didn't vote for the "Levin amendment" in 2002, prior to voting for the resolution that gave President Bush authority to invade Iraq. Viewers might well have been confused by her answer, because the questioner described the amendment inaccurately. We offer background here in the interest of clear understanding. Here is the pertinent part of the exchange:

Q: Before the U.S. invasion of Iraq, you could have voted for the Levin amendment, which required President Bush to report to Congress about the U.N. inspection before taking military action. Why did you vote against that amendment?

Clinton: … I have the greatest respect for my friend and colleague, Senator Levin. He's my chairman on the Senate Armed Services Committee. The way that amendment was drafted suggested that the United States would subordinate whatever our judgment might be going forward to the United Nations Security Council. I don't think that was a good precedent. Therefore I voted against it.

The Levin Amendment went far beyond requiring a "report to Congress." It would have required that the U.S. get authorization from the United Nations Security Council before taking military action to disarm Iraq or, failing that, that the president come back to the Senate for a separate war authorization. It was amendment No. 4862, debated Oct. 10, 2002, and defeated 24 to 75. Clinton did not speak during debate.

Democratic Sen. Carl Levin of Michigan, arguing for his amendment, said Saddam Hussein needed to be disarmed by force or threat of force, but that military action by many nations would be better than "going it alone" and that the president could still ask the Senate to act if the U.N. refused:

Sen. Levin, Oct. 10, 2002: I believe that Saddam Hussein must be forced to disarm. I think it is going to take force, or the threat of force, to get him to comply. It seems to me there is a huge advantage if that force is multilateral, and going it alone is a very different calculus with very different risks.

If we fail at the U.N., then under our resolution, the president can come back at any time he determines that the U.N. is not acting to either adopt or enforce its resolution. He can then come back here under our resolution, call us back into session, and then urge us to authorize a going-it-alone, unilateral resolution.

But arguing against the measure, Republican Sen. John McCain of Arizona made essentially the same argument that Clinton offered during last night's debate:

Sen. McCain, Oct. 10, 2002: Mr. President, at the outset, let me state that I agree with the distinguished Chairman of the Armed Services Committee: U.S. policy would be stronger if we received the unequivocal support of the United Nations Security Council. Of that, there is no doubt.

But that does not mean that our country must delegate our national security decisionmaking to the United Nations. It is neither morally necessary nor wise to give the U.N. Security Council veto power over our security.

McCain pointed out that getting a Security Council resolution would require the support of Russia, China and France, all of which he said had reasons to avoid supporting military action against Iraq.

Update Feb 3: Though Clinton did not speak on the floor during debate on the amendment, she did address the substance of it later, just before her vote in favor of the resolution itself. She noted that the Russians had vetoed U.N. action against the Serbs in Kosovo, and said that comments by one or two Security Council members indicated it might not authorize force against Saddam Hussein unless he actually used chemical, biological or nuclear weapons.

Here is what she said:

Others argue that we should work through the United Nations and should
only resort to force if and when the United Nations Security Council approves it. This too has great appeal for different reasons. The United Nations deserves our support. Whenever possible we should work through it and strengthen it, for it enables the world to share the risks and burdens of global security and when it acts, it confers a legitimacy that increases the likelihood of long-term success. The United Nations can lead the world into a new era of global cooperation. And the United States should support that goal.

But there are problems with this approach as well. The United Nations is
an organization that is still growing and maturing. It often lacks the cohesion to enforce its own mandates. And when Security Council members use the veto on occasion for reasons of narrow national interest, it cannot act. In Kosovo, the Russians did not approve the NATO military action because of political, ethnic, and religious ties to the Serbs. The United States, therefore, could not obtain a Security Council resolution in favor of the action necessary to stop the dislocation and ethnic cleansing of more than a million Kosovar Albanians.

However, most of the world was with us because there was a genuine
emergency with thousands dead and a million more driven from their
homes. As soon as the American-led conflict was over, Russia joined the
peacekeeping effort that is still underway.

In the case of Iraq, recent comments indicate that one or two Security
Council members might never approve forces against Saddam Hussein until he has actually used chemical, biological, or God forbid, nuclear weapons.

– by Brooks Jackson, with Viveca Novak, Justin Bank and Jess Henig 


Florida Department of State. Division of Elections. State Election Reporting System, March 9, 2004 Presidential Preference Primary, accessed 1 Feb. 2008.

New Hampshire Secretary of State. Presidential Primary Election, January 8, 2008, President of the United States – Democratic, accessed 1 Feb. 2008.

New Hampshire Secretary of State. Presidential Primary Election, January 27, 2004, President of the United States – Democratic, accessed 1 Feb. 2008.

"Let's go to the tape on Clinton brouhaha." Nashua Telegraph, 2 Nov. 2007.

Transcript, "MSNBC Democratic Debate." Federal News Service, as posted on the New York Times Web site, 30 Oct. 2007.

U.S. Department of the Treasury. "Treasury Conference on Business Taxation and Global Competitiveness; Background Paper," 23 July 2007.

Common Cause Education Fund. "Ask Yourself Why…Mortgage Foreclosure Rates are So High," 8 May 2007.