McCain and Obama contradicted each other repeatedly during their first debate, and each volunteered some factual misstatements as well. Here’s how we sort them out:
- Obama said McCain adviser Henry Kissinger backs talks with Iran “without preconditions,” but McCain disputed that. In fact, Kissinger did recently call for “high level” talks with Iran starting at the secretary of state level and said, “I do not believe that we can make conditions.” After the debate the McCain campaign issued a statement quoting Kissinger as saying he didn’t favor presidential talks with Iran.
- Obama denied voting for a bill that called for increased taxes on “people” making as little as $42,000 a year, as McCain accused him of doing. McCain was right, though only for single taxpayers. A married couple would have had to make $83,000 to be affected by the vote, and anyway no such increase is in Obama’s tax plan.
- McCain and Obama contradicted each other on what Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman Admiral Mike Mullen said about troop withdrawals. Mullen said a time line for withdrawal could be “very dangerous” but was not talking specifically about “Obama’s plan,” as McCain maintained.
- McCain tripped up on one of his signature issues – special appropriation “earmarks.” He said they had “tripled in the last five years,” when in fact they have decreased sharply.
- Obama claimed Iraq “has” a $79 billion surplus. It once was projected to be as high as that. It’s now down to less than $60 billion.
- McCain repeated his overstated claim that the U.S. pays $700 billion a year for oil to hostile nations. Imports are running at about $536 billion this year, and a third of it comes from Canada, Mexico and the U.K.
- Obama said 95 percent of “the American people” would see a tax cut under his proposal. The actual figure is 81 percent of households.
- Obama mischaracterized an aspect of McCain’s health care plan, saying “employers” would be taxed on the value of health benefits provided to workers. Employers wouldn’t, but the workers would. McCain also would grant workers up to a $5,000 tax credit per family to cover health insurance.
- McCain misrepresented Obama's plan by claiming he'd be "handing the health care system over to the federal government." Obama would expand some government programs but would allow people to keep their current plans or choose from private ones, as well.
- McCain claimed Gen. Dwight D. Eisenhower had drafted a letter of resignation from the Army to be sent in case the 1944 D-Day landing at Normandy turned out to be a failure. Ike prepared a letter taking responsibility, but he didn’t mention resigning.
For full details, as well as other dubious claims and statements, please read our full Analysis section.
We noted these factual misstatements:
McCain attacked Obama for his declaration that he would meet with leaders of Iran and other hostile nations "without preconditions." To do so with Iran, McCain said, "isn't just naive; it's dangerous." Obama countered by saying former Secretary of State Henry Kissinger – a McCain adviser – agreed with him:
Obama: Senator McCain mentioned Henry Kissinger, who's one of his advisers, who, along with five recent secretaries of state, just said that we should meet with Iran – guess what – without precondition. This is one of your own advisers.
McCain rejected Obama's claim:
McCain: By the way, my friend, Dr. Kissinger, who's been my friend for 35 years, would be interested to hear this conversation and Senator Obama's depiction of his — of his positions on the issue. I've known him for 35 years.
Obama: We will take a look.
McCain: And I guarantee you he would not — he would not say that presidential top level.
Obama: Nobody's talking about that.
So who's right? Kissinger did in fact say a few days earlier at a forum of former secretaries of state that he favors very high-level talks with Iran – without conditions:
Kissinger Sept. 20: Well, I am in favor of negotiating with Iran. And one utility of negotiation is to put before Iran our vision of a Middle East, of a stable Middle East, and our notion on nuclear proliferation at a high enough level so that they have to study it. And, therefore, I actually have preferred doing it at the secretary of state level so that we — we know we're dealing with authentic…
CNN's Frank Sesno: Put at a very high level right out of the box?
Kissinger: Initially, yes.But I do not believe that we can make conditions for the opening of negotiations.
Later, McCain's running mate, Sarah Palin, was asked about this by CBS News anchor Katie Couric, and Palin said, "I’ve never heard Henry Kissinger say, ‘Yeah, I’ll meet with these leaders without preconditions being met.'" Afterward Couric said, "We confirmed Henry Kissinger’s position following our interview."
After the McCain-Obama debate, however, Kissinger issued a statement saying he doesn't favor a presidential meeting:
Kissinger: Senator McCain is right. I would not recommend the next President of the United States engage in talks with Iran at the Presidential level. My views on this issue are entirely compatible with the views of my friend Senator John McCain.
McCain said – and Obama denied – that Obama had voted to increase taxes on "people who make as low as $42,000 a year." McCain was correct – with qualification.
McCain: But, again, Senator Obama has shifted on a number of occasions. He has voted in the United States Senate to increase taxes on people who make as low as $42,000 a year.
Obama: That's not true, John. That's not true.
McCain: And that's just a fact. Again, you can look it up.
Obama: Look, it's just not true.
Yes, as we’ve said before, Obama did in fact vote for a budget resolution that called for higher federal income tax rates on a single, non-homeowner who earned as little as $42,000 per year. A couple filing jointly, however, would have had to earn at least $83,000 per year to be affected. A family of four with income up to $90,000 would not have been affected.
The resolution actually would not have altered taxes without additional legislation. It called generally for allowing most of the 2001 and 2003 Bush tax cuts to expire. McCain is referring to the provision that would have allowed the 25 percent tax bracket to return to 28 percent. The tax plan Obama now proposes, however, would not raise the rate on that tax bracket.
Obama contradicted McCain about what Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman Admiral Mike Mullen's said regarding "Obama's plan" for troop withdrawals.
McCain: Admiral Mullen suggests that Senator Obama's plan is dangerous for America.
Obama: That's not the case.
McCain: That's what …
Obama: What he said was a precipitous…
McCain: That's what Admiral Mullen said.
Obama: … withdrawal would be dangerous. He did not say that. That's not true.
Admiral Mullen did say in a Fox News interview that having a time line for withdrawal would be dangerous.
Mullen (July 20): I think the consequences could be very dangerous in that regard. I'm convinced at this point in time that coming – making reductions based on conditions on the ground are very important.
However, interviewer Chris Wallace had just told Mullen to take Obama out of the equation.
Wallace (July 20): But I'm asking you in the absence – forget about Obama. Forget about the politics. If I were to say to you, "Let's set a time line of getting all of our combat troops out within two years," what do you think would be the consequences of setting that kind of a time line?
So strictly speaking Mullen was not talking specifically about "Obama's plan." He did say a rigid timetable could have dangerous consequences.
McCain was way off the mark when he said that earmarks in federal appropriations bills had tripled in the last five years.
McCain: But the point is that – you see, I hear this all the time. "It's only $18
billion." Do you know that it's tripled in the last five years?
In fact, earmarks have actually gone down. According to Citizens Against Government Waste, there was $22.5 billion worth of earmark spending in 2003. By 2008, that figure had come down to $17.2 billion. That's a decrease of 24 percent.
Taxpayers for Common Sense, another watchdog group, said in 2008 that "Congress has cut earmarks by 23 percent from the record 2005 levels," according to its analysis.
And while we're on the subject of earmarks, McCain repeated a misleading line we've heard before.
McCain: You know, we spent $3 million to study the DNA of bears in Montana. I don't know if that was a criminal issue or a paternal issue, but the fact is that it was $3 million of our taxpayers' money. And it has got to be brought under control.
McCain's been playing this for laughs since 2003. The study in question was done by the U.S. Geological Survey, and it relied in part on federal appropriations. Readers (and politicians) may disagree on whether a noninvasive study of grizzly bear population and habitat is a waste of money. McCain clearly thinks it is – but on the other hand, he never moved to get rid of the earmark. In fact, he voted for the bill that made appropriations for the study. He did propose some changes to the bill, but none that nixed the bear funding.
Obama was out of date in saying the Iraqi government has "79 billion dollars," when he argued that the U.S. should stop spending money on the war in Iraq.
Obama: We are currently spending $10 billion a month in Iraq when they have a $79 billion surplus.
As we've said before, there was a time when the country could have had as much as $79 billion, but that time has passed. What the Iraqis actually “have” is $29.4 billion in the bank. The Government Accountability Office projected in August that Iraq’s 2008 budget surplus could range anywhere from $38.2 billion to $50.3 billion, depending on oil revenue, price and volume. Then, in early August, the Iraqi legislature passed a $21 billion supplemental spending bill, which was omitted from the GAO’s surplus tally since it was still under consideration. The supplemental will be completely funded by this year’s surplus. So the range of what the Iraqi’s could have at year’s end is actually $47 billion to $59 billion. The $79 billion figure is outdated and incorrect.
Update, Oct. 13: According to GAO, Iraq was unable to spend its entire budget in 2005, 2006 and 2007. If the Iraqi government doesn't spend its entire supplemental budget this year, Iraq’s surplus could still end up at around $79 billion. See our post at The FactCheck Wire for more details.
McCain repeated an exaggerated claim that the U.S. is sending $700 billion per year to hostile countries.
McCain: Look, we are sending $700 billion a year overseas to countries that don't like us very much. Some of that money ends up in the hands of terrorist organizations.
That's not accurate. McCain also made this claim in his acceptance speech at the Republican National Convention. He's referring to the amount of money the U.S. spends in importing oil. But the number is inflated. In fact, we actually pay more like $536 billion for the oil we need. And one-third of those payments go to Canada, Mexico and the U.K.
(Note: A few of our readers messaged us, after we first noted McCain's mistake, with the thought that he was referring to foreign aid and not to oil. If so he's even farther off than we supposed: The entire budget for the State Department and International Programs works out to just $51.3 billion.)
Correction: We originally wrote $51.3 million – the correct figure is billion.
Obama overstated how many people would save on taxes under his plan:
Obama: My definition – here's what I can tell the American people: 95 percent of you will get a tax cut. And if you make less than $250,000, less than a quarter-million dollars a year, then you will not see one dime's worth of tax increase.
That should be 95 percent of families, not 95 percent of "American people." An analysis by the Urban-Brookings Tax Policy Center found that Obama's plan would decrease taxes for 95.5 percent of families with children. Overall, 81.3 percent of households would get a tax cut under his proposal.
Obama and McCain traded incorrect statements on each other's health care plan.
Obama: So you may end up getting a $5,000 tax credit. Here's the only problem: Your employer now has to pay taxes on the health care that you're getting from your employer.
As we said before, McCain’s plan doesn’t call for taxing employers on health care benefits; it would instead tax employees. As the law stands now, employees don’t pay taxes on the dollar value of their health insurance benefits. Under McCain’s plan, they would.
McCain also misrepresented Obama's plan when he said that his opponent favored "handing the health care system over to the federal government."
McCain: Well, I want to make sure we're not handing the health care system over to the federal government which is basically what would ultimately happen with Senator Obama's health care plan. I want the families to make decisions between themselves and their doctors. Not the federal government.
McCain made a similar claim in his acceptance speech, when he said that
Obama's plans would "force families into a government run health care
system." We called it false then and we stand by that. Obama's plan mandates coverage for children, but not for adults, and it does not require anyone to be covered by a nationalized system. Obama's plan expands the insurance coverage offered by the government, but allows people to keep their own plans or choose from private plans as well.
McCain mangled his military history:
McCain: President Eisenhower, on the night before the Normandy invasion, went into his room, and he wrote out two letters.
One of them was a letter congratulating the great members of the military and allies that had conducted and succeeded in the greatest invasion in history, still to this day, and forever.
And he wrote out another letter, and that was a letter of resignation from the United States Army for the failure of the landings at Normandy.
The story is widely circulated in military circles but not entirely true. Eisenhower (then a general, not yet a president) did in fact write a letter taking responsibility should the D-Day invasion fail. But Eisenhower's letter does not mention resigning. Here's the full text:
Eisenhower (June 5, 1944): Our landings in the Cherbourg-Havre area have failed to gain a satisfactory foothold and I have withdrawn the troops. My decision to attack at this time and place was based on the best information available. The troops, the air and the Navy did all that bravery and devotion to duty could do. If any blame or fault attaches to the attempt it is mine alone.
No mention of quitting the Army, or his command.
Obama stretched out his schedule for withdrawing troops from Iraq. During the debate, Obama said we could "reduce" the number of combat troops in 16 months:
Obama: Now, what I've said is we should end this war responsibly. We should do it in phases. But in 16 months we should be able to reduce our combat troops, put – provide some relief to military families and our troops and bolster our efforts in Afghanistan so that we can capture and kill bin Laden and crush al Qaeda.
But in Oct. 2007, Obama supported removing all combat troops from Iraq
within 16 months:
Obama (Oct. 2007): I will remove one or two brigades a month, and get all of our combat troops out of Iraq within 16 months. The only troops I will keep in Iraq will perform the limited missions of protecting our diplomats and carrying out targeted strikes on al Qaeda. And I will launch the diplomatic and humanitarian initiatives that are so badly needed. Let there be no doubt: I will end this war.
The quote appears in "Barack Obama and Joe Biden on Defense Issues" – a
position paper that was still available on the campaign's Web site as Obama spoke.
McCain repeated the false insinuation that Obama opposed naming Iran's Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps as a terrorist organization.
McCain: There is the Republican Guard in Iran, which Senator Kyl had an amendment in order to declare them a sponsor of terror. Senator Obama said that would be provocative. …
Obama: Well, let me just correct something very quickly. I believe the Republican Guard of Iran is a terrorist organization. I've consistently said so. What Senator McCain refers to is a measure in the Senate that would try to broaden the mandate inside of Iraq. To deal with Iran.
Obama has in fact said that the IRGC should be named a terrorist group. He was a cosponsor of the Iran Counter-Proliferation Act, which, among other things, named the IRGC a terrorist organization. What he voted against was the Kyl-Lieberman amendment, which also called for the terrorist group distinction. But Obama said that he opposed the amendment on the grounds that it was "saber-rattling."
Obama press release (Sept. 26, 2007): Senator Obama clearly recognizes the serious threat posed by Iran. However, he does not agree with the president that the best way to counter that threat is to keep large numbers of troops in Iraq, and he does not think that now is the time for saber-rattling towards Iran. In fact, he thinks that our large troop presence in Iraq has served to strengthen Iran – not weaken it. He believes that diplomacy and economic pressure, such as the divestment bill that he has proposed, is the right way to pressure the Iranian regime. Accordingly, he would have opposed the Kyl-Lieberman amendment had he been able to vote today.
McCain called Obama's initial statement on the conflict in Georgia "naive." It's worth noting Obama's words echoed those of the White House.
McCain: Well, I was interested in Senator Obama's reaction to the Russian aggression against Georgia. His first statement was, "Both sides ought to show restraint."
Again, a little bit of naivete there. He doesn't understand that Russia committed serious aggression against Georgia.
It's true, as McCain said, that during the conflict between Georgia and Russia, Obama said, "Now is the time for Georgia and Russia to show restraint, and to
avoid an escalation to full scale war" in his first statement on the conflict. But so did the White House. Press secretary Dana Perino said on Aug. 8, “We urge restraint on all sides – that violence would be curtailed and that direct dialogue could ensue in order to help resolve their differences.” We pointed this out when New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani mischaracterized Obama's response to the crisis during the GOP convention.
McCain went too far when he said, "I saved the taxpayers $6.8 billion by fighting a contract that was negotiated between Boeing and DOD that was completely wrong. And we fixed it and we killed it."
McCain certainly did lead a fight to kill the contract, and the effort ended in prison sentences for defense contractors. But the contract isn't exactly "fixed" yet. In fact, questions have been raised about the role McCain has played in helping a Boeing rival secure the new contract.
After the original Boeing contract to supply refueling airliners was nixed in 2003, the bidding process was reopened. And in early 2007, Boeing rival EADS/Airbus won the bid the second time around. But Boeing filed a protest about the way the bids were processed, and the Government Accountability Office released a report that found in Boeing's favor. In the summary of GAO's investigation, the organization said there were "significant errors" with the bid process and that the directions given to Boeing were "misleading."
Further, the New York Times reported that "McCain’s top advisers, including a cochairman of his presidential campaign, were lobbyists for EADS. And Mr. McCain had written to the Defense Department, urging it to ignore a trade dispute between the United States and Europe over whether Airbus received improper subsidies." A liberal campaign finance group ran an ad hitting McCain on the connections back in July and our colleagues at PolitiFact found their attacks to be true, saying: "Center for Responsive Politics prepared a report for PolitiFact that backs [the charge] up. U.S. employees of EADS/Airbus have contributed $15,700 in this election cycle to McCain’s campaign."
McCain said Obama was against storing nuclear waste. That's not exactly his position.
McCain: And Senator Obama says he's for nuclear, but he's against reprocessing and he's against storing.
Obama: I — I just have to correct the record here. I have never said that I object to nuclear waste. What I've said is that we have to store it safely.
Obama's official position is that he does support safe storage of nuclear waste:
Obama fact sheet: Obama will also lead federal efforts to look for a safe, long-term disposal solution based on objective, scientific analysis. In the meantime, Obama will develop requirements to ensure that the waste stored at current reactor sites is contained using the most advanced dry-cask storage technology available. Barack Obama believes that Yucca Mountain is not an option. Our government has spent billions of dollars on Yucca Mountain, and yet there are still significant questions about whether nuclear waste can be safely stored there.
But the McCain campaign has attacked Obama before on this issue, going as
far as to claim Obama did not support nuclear energy at all, which was false. Obama has said he supports nuclear as long as it is "clean and safe."
Obama said that McCain had voted 23 times against alternative energy:
Obama: Over 26 years, Senator McCain voted 23 times against alternative energy, like solar, and wind, and biodiesel.
Here's the Obama campaign's list of the 23 votes. We find they're overstating the case. In many instances, McCain voted not against alternative energy but against mandatory use of alternative energy, or he voted in favor of allowing exemptions from these mandates. Only 11 of the 23 votes cited by the Obama campaign involve reducing or eliminating incentives for renewable energy.
Meanwhile, McCain was indignant at the suggestion that he'd voted against alternative energy at all.
McCain: I have voted for alternate fuel all of my time. … No one can be opposed to alternate energy.
But McCain's record says differently. As we say above, he has voted against funding for alternative energy on 11 occasions. He may be in favor of alternative energy in theory, but he has declined opportunities to support it.
In McCain's energy plan, he supports nuclear power and "clean" coal, which are alternative energies. But they don't qualify as renewable energy, such as hydro,
solar and wind power. McCain's plan makes a vague promise to "rationalize
the current patchwork of temporary tax credits that provide commercial
feasibility." The experts we talked to weren't sure what exactly that meant.
Both candidates were right in talking about Obama’s NATO subcommittee.
McCain: Senator Obama is the chairperson of a committee that oversights NATO, that's in Afghanistan. To this day he's never had a hearing. …
Obama: Look, the — I'm very proud of my vice presidential selection, Joe Biden, who's the chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. And as he explains and as John well knows, the issues of Afghanistan, the issues of Iraq, critical issues like that don't go through my subcommittee because they're done as a committee as a whole.
As we've already reported Obama's Subcommittee on European Affairs does have jurisdiction over NATO, which is supplying about half of the troops in Afghanistan. His subcommittee does not have jurisdiction over Afghanistan proper.
Correction: We originally described the subcommittee as the "subcommittee on Afghanistan"; it is called the Subcommittee on European Affairs.
We also caught McCain getting his congressional history a little wrong.
McCain: Back in 1983, when I was a brand-new United States congressman,
the one — the person I admired the most and still admire the most, Ronald
Reagan, wanted to send Marines into Lebanon. And I saw that, and I saw the
situation, and I stood up, and I voted against that because I was afraid
that they couldn't make peace in a place where 300 or 400 or several
hundred Marines would make a difference. Tragically, I was right: Nearly
300 Marines lost their lives in the bombing of the barracks.
This isn’t quite right. Marines were initially deployed to Lebanon in August 1982. McCain, however, was not elected to the U.S. House until November 1982, more than three months after Marines had already landed.
McCain is referring to a 1983 vote to invoke the War Powers Act. That bill, which Ronald Reagan signed into law on October 12, 1983, authorized an 18-month deployment for the Marines. On October 13, a suicide bomber destroyed the Marine barracks in Beirut. McCain did in fact break with most Republicans to vote against the bill.
–by Brooks Jackson, Lori Robertson, Justin Bank, Jess Henig, Emi Kolawole and Joe Miller
"Statement Regarding the Bid Protest Decision Resolving the Aerial Refueling Tanker Protest by The Boeing Company" Government Accountability Office. 18 June 2008.
Isikoff, Michael, "McCain’s Boeing Battle Boomerangs," Newsweek. 30 June 2008.
Laurent, Lionel, "Boeing Boomerangs on McCain," Forbers Magazine. 4 March 2008.
Wayne, Leslie, "Audit Says Tanker Deal Is Flawed," New York Times. 19 June 2008.
Tax Policy Center. "Individual Income Tax Brackets, 1945 – 2008." 4 November 2007. Tax Policy Center, 7 July 2008.
"U.S. Imports by Country of Origin." U.S. Energy Information Administration, accessed 5 Sept. 2008.
"Spot Prices, Crude Oil in Dollars per Barrel." U.S. Energy Information Administration, accessed 5 Sept. 2008.
"S. 970: Iran Counter-Proliferation Act of 2007." 8 April 2008.
Thomas.gov. 2 June 2008.
"Sec. 1538 of H.R. 1585." National Defense Authorization Act for Fiscal Year 2008. Thomas.gov. 2 June 2008
U.S. Senate. "Roll Call Vote on Senate Amendment 3017." 26 Sept. 2007. U.S. Senate: Legislation and Records. 2 June 2008.
Grimmett, Richard F. "Congressional Use of Funding Cutoffs Since 1970 Involving U.S. Military Forces and Overseas Deployments." Congressional Research Service. 10 January 2001.
Daggett, Stephen. Costs of Major U.S. Wars. 24 Jul. 2008. Congressional Research Service.
Adair, Bill. Obama "suggested bombing Pakistan". Politifact.com.
Barack Obama and Joe Biden on Defense Issues. Obama for America.
Barack Obama's Plan to Make America A Global Energy Leader. Obama for America.