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A Project of The Annenberg Public Policy Center

Saddleback Bloopers

Obama makes misleading claims about ethics legislation and abortion at a church-sponsored forum. McCain exaggerates his tax-cut proposals.



At a nationally televised forum at a mega-church in Southern California, we found these misrepresentations:

  • Obama claimed that "I worked with John McCain" on ethics legislation. In fact, the two worked together for barely a week, after which McCain accused Obama of "partisan posturing" and added, "I won’t make the same mistake again." McCain later voted against the ethics bill that Obama supported, stating that it was written by Democrats with "no input" from Republicans.
  • Obama wrongly claimed that abortions "have not gone down" under President Bush. In fact, the abortion rate has gone down 9 percent, and the annual total has declined by more than 100,000.
  • McCain exaggerated the extent of his proposals to cut taxes. He incorrectly claimed he would give a "tax credit" of $7,000 per child, which would be seven times as high as the current credit. His actual proposal would gradually increase the current $3,500 exemption, which benefits high-bracket taxpayers most.


Sens. Barack Obama and John McCain appeared one after the other Aug. 16 at the “Saddleback Civil Forum on the Presidency” at Pastor Rick Warren’s Saddleback Church in Lake Forest, Calif. The event was televised nationally on CNN and Fox News.


Twisted Ethics History

Obama offered a twisted account of his working with a Republican and "against party loyalty." He said he "worked with John McCain" on ethics legislation, when in fact their short-lived collaboration collapsed into bitter public wrangling long before any bill resulted. And the legislation that became law was backed by Democrats and only opposed by Republicans in the Senate, including McCain.

Warren: Can you give me a good example where you went against party loyalty, and maybe even went against your own best interest, for the good of America?

Obama: Well, you know, I’ll give you an example that, in fact, I worked with John McCain on, and that was the issue of campaign ethics reform and finance reform. That wasn’t probably in my interest or his, for that matter, because the truth was that both Democrats and Republicans sort of like the status quo.

David McNew/Getty Images

It’s true that Obama approached McCain on the floor of the Senate in early 2006, amid the unfolding Jack Abramoff lobbying scandal, and suggested that they work together on an ethics bill. But their joint efforts quickly produced a remarkable public falling-out. Obama backed out of the effort, saying to McCain in a letter dated Feb. 2, 2006, that he and other Senate Democrats had decided against McCain’s idea of a "task force" on ethics, preferring to let standing Senate committees work on the matter.

McCain sent back an angry, blistering response, accusing Obama of insincerity and "self-interested partisan posturing":

McCain (letter to Obama) Feb. 6, 2006: I would like to apologize to you for assuming that your private assurances to me regarding your desire to cooperate in our efforts to negotiate bipartisan lobbying reform legislation were sincere. … I’m embarrassed to admit that after all these years in politics I failed to interpret your previous assurances as typical rhetorical gloss routinely used in politics to make self-interested partisan posturing appear more noble. Again, sorry for the confusion, but please be assured I won’t make the same mistake again.

Two days later, the two men publicly made up at a hearing on lobbying and ethics reform held by the Senate Committee on Rules and Administration. Obama said he was "pleased to be sharing this panel with my pen pal, John McCain." McCain said, "Sen. Obama and I are moving on" and "I value his input." However, two years later, the Washington Post said of their failed collaboration: "It was the first, and only, time the two ever tried extensively working together."

It’s true that both Obama and McCain wanted tougher ethics legislation than either the Democratic or Republican leadership at first was willing to support. The Senate passed an ethics bill March 29, 2006, with strong bipartisan support – the vote was 90 to 8 – but both Obama and McCain were among those voting against the measure on grounds that it did not go far enough. That bill failed to become law, but in 2007 (after Democrats took control) the Senate passed a version Obama and McCain both supported. That vote was 98 to 2.

"No Input from the Republicans"

But in the end, the two found themselves again on opposite sides on the ethics law. When a House-passed version came back to the Senate, McCain voted against it and Obama voted for it. That version passed 83 to 14 and became law. McCain complained that the House had stripped out any "meaningful" reforms of earmarks, through which individual House and Senate members insert funds for pet projects into appropriations bills. He also complained that the bill had been written by Democrats who held majorities in both the House and Senate, with "no input" from Republicans.

McCain, Aug. 2, 2007: Under this majority-written bill, with no input from the Republicans, this bill will, unless you hold one of the top positions, you will now wield even more power, even more power with your pork-barrel pen. … [T]he bill before us fixes only part of the problem and does not go to the heart of the problem. The heart of the problem that has bred the corruption is the earmark process.

Against Party Loyalty?

Worth noting, also, is that Obama gave his supposed collaboration with McCain as an example of how he had worked "against party loyalty … for the good of America," in the words used by Warren in his question. In fact, the measure that became law was sponsored by Senate Democratic leader Harry Reid and a bipartisan list of 16 others. Only Republicans voted against it in the end. Democratic House Speaker Nancy Pelosi said the bill helped fulfill an election pledge by Democrats to "drain the swamp" of corruption, and the Los Angeles Times reported that "Democrats cheered the bill as a major legislative triumph."

Obama would have been justified in saying that his work paralleled that of McCain and that they had some of the same ethics goals. But saying that he "worked with" his Republican opponent on this is a huge exaggeration. He also can properly claim some credit for features of the new ethics law that weren’t at first embraced by his party’s leaders. But in the end the bill was hardly a test of party loyalty.

A Bad Abortion Stat, Again

Obama, who favors a legal right to abortion, noted that he was trying to "reduce the number of abortions." But he went too far when he falsely accused President Bush of failing to meet that same goal, saying incorrectly that "over the last eight years, abortions have not gone down."

Warren: Now, let’s deal with abortion; 40 million abortions since Roe v. Wade. …

Obama: … I am pro-choice. I believe in Roe v. Wade, and I come to that conclusion not because I’m pro-abortion, but because, ultimately, I don’t think women make these decisions casually. … And so, for me, the goal right now should be – and this is where I think we can find common ground. And by the way, I’ve now inserted this into the Democratic Party platform, is how do we reduce the number of abortions? The fact is that although we have had a president who is opposed to abortion over the last eight years, abortions have not gone down and that is something we have to address.

This is an erroneous claim that we first tracked down and debunked more than three years ago when it was being repeated by Democratic Party chairman Howard Dean and Sens. Hillary Clinton and John Kerry, among others. See our article, "Biography of a Bad Statistic" from May 26, 2005, for full details on how a liberal theologian first came up with this notion. The fact is, it is false. The best source we know of for statistics on the number of abortions is the Guttmacher Institute, whose figures are cited regularly by both sides in the abortion debate.

And Guttmacher says prominently on its Web site:

Guttmacher Institute: In 2005, 1.21 million abortions were performed, down from 1.31 million abortions in 2000.

In fact, Guttmacher’s most recent published figures show 106,800 fewer abortions in George Bush’s fifth year than in Bill Clinton’s last year in office. That represents an 8 percent decline in the number of abortions and an even larger decline – 9 percent – in the rate of abortions per 1,000 women aged 15 through 44. 

Guttmacher bases this finding on a survey of all 1,787 known abortion providers in the U.S.

We asked the Obama campaign where the candidate got his information, and we’re still waiting for a response.

It should be noted that there’s little to show the decline has come about because of anything President Bush did or didn’t do. In fact,  the number of abortions in the U.S. has been falling steadily since the 1980s regardless of whether the person in the White House favored a legal right to abortion or opposed it.

Source: Reprinted from "Trends in Abortions in the United States, 1973 – 2005" Guttmacher Institute, January 2008

Guttmacher’s figures show the number peaked several years after the Supreme Court’s 1973 Roe v. Wade decision that created a national legal right to abortion, held fairly steady throughout Republican Ronald Reagan’s presidency, and has declined through the presidencies of Republican George H.W. Bush, Democrat Bill Clinton and Republican George W. Bush.

And just for the record, the authors of Guttmacher’s study said in March 2008 that they can’t tell exactly why the decline is taking place. Reasons probably include "better contraceptive use, lower levels of unintended pregnancy, more women carrying unintended pregnancies to term and greater difficulties accessing abortion services in some geographic areas," the authors said.

McCain Overpromises

McCain made his tax plan sound way too generous to middle-income taxpayers, incorrectly describing one of his own proposals and omitting a key feature of another:


McCain: Let’s have – keep taxes low. Let’s give every family in America a $7,000 tax credit for every child they have. Let’s give them a $5,000 refundable tax credit to go out and get the health insurance of their choice. Let’s not have the government take over the health care system in America.

David McNew/Getty Images

Getting his own "tax credit" wrong: McCain was badly wrong in what he said about the child "tax credit." The current child tax credit is $1,000, and McCain is not proposing any increase at all. What McCain actually is proposing is a gradual increase in the $3,500 exemption for each dependent child, starting in 2010 and increasing $500 each year until it reaches $7,000 in 2016. On his Web site McCain describes this as a "doubling" of the exemption, but even that is misleading. According to the nonpartisan Tax Policy Center, the exemption is expected to go up to $4,200 per child in that time period under current law, which calls for annual adjustments for inflation.

The distinction between a tax credit and a tax exemption is both basic and significant. A tax credit is a dollar-for-dollar reduction in the amount of tax owed. An exemption is much less valuable to taxpayers, as it merely reduces the amount of income subject to tax. An exemption is also more valuable to upper-income taxpayers, who fall into higher tax brackets, than to middle- and lower-income taxpayers.

A half-truth about a health tax credit: McCain said he proposed giving every family "a $5,000 refundable tax credit to go out and get the health insurance of their choice." But he failed to mention what he would also take away. Under his plan, workers would be taxed on the value of any health benefits paid for by their employers, which isn’t the case under current law.

McCain didn’t include that fact in an ad his campaign aired in May touting his health care plan, either. As we said at the time, the credit isn’t a $5,000 windfall – it’s designed to cover the increased taxes families with employer-sponsored insurance would have to pay. Kenneth E. Thorpe, a former Clinton administration health expert who now is a professor at Emory University, told us that there would be "a lot of winners and losers" under McCain’s plan. Those with lower incomes and employer-sponsored insurance might fare better, because they’d be taxed at a lower rate than those in higher tax brackets. While families would get a $5,000 credit under McCain’s plan, individuals would get $2,500.

— by Brooks Jackson


Kane, Paul. "Obama, McCain Forged Fleeting Alliance; Efforts to Collaborate on Ethics Reform Fell Apart Within a Week." Washington Post, 31 March 2008.

Sweet, Lynn. "McCain, Obama now ‘pen pals.’" Chicago Sun-Times blog, The scoop from Washington 8 Feb 2006.

Remarks of Sen. John McCain. Congressional Record, 2 Aug 2007; S10693.

Simon, Richard. "Bush signs bill to tighten lobbying rules." Los Angeles Times, 15 Sept. 2007.

Jones, Rachel K. et al. "Abortion in the United States: Incidence and Access to Services, 2005." Perspectives on Sexual and Reproductive Health, March 2008.

Guttmacher Institute. "An Overview of Abortion in the United States," Web page accessed 17 Aug 2008.

"Trends in Abortions in the United States, 1973 – 2005." Guttmacher Institute, Jan. 2008.

Burman, Len, et. al. “An Updated Analysis of the 2008 Presidential Candidates’ Tax Plans: Revised August 15, 2008,” Tax Policy Center, 15 Aug. 2008.