A Project of The Annenberg Public Policy Center

Stretching with Biden

Obama's running mate gives a twist to McCain's words while stumping in Michigan.


Summary

Biden proved once again that it doesn’t take outright falsehoods to create a skewed impression of one’s opponent. We found in a Sept. 15 speech that:

  • Biden used partial quotes to support his charge that McCain wouldn’t help "small borrowers" suffering in the mortgage crisis but would "fight for those that lost their … real estate investments." In fact, McCain’s full quote said he would also fight for those who "lost their jobs" and "savings," and he has proposed assistance for homeowners.
  • He said McCain called Sen. Webb’s GI Bill proposal "too generous." McCain never used those words. He did support a less-costly version of the bill.
  • Biden repeated several other talking points that we’ve previously critiqued for their spin, including the accusation that McCain would give $4 billion a year in tax cuts to oil companies.

Analysis

In a Sept. 15 speech, Democratic vice presidential nominee Joe Biden attempted to outline the differences between Sens. Barack Obama and John McCain on issues ranging from bank bailouts to Social Security. But he played loose with McCain’s words to make some of his points.

Fighting for Investors?

Biden made it appear as if McCain was only going to work on behalf of those with “real estate investments":

Biden: Let me just give you one more example. In the midst of this housing crisis, John McCain said, “I will fight for those that lost their … real estate investments.” He went on to say, “It’s not the role of government to bail out big banks or small borrowers.”…What about the people who don’t invest in homes, but live in them? There’s an important distinction between the predators and the preyed upon.

There is, but there’s also a distinction between a full quote and a partial quote.

McCain took a hard line against government assistance in March but added some cushioning this month as financial crises mounted. Here is his comment from the March 25 sit-down with the Orange County Hispanic Small Business Roundtable:

McCain: I have always been committed to the principle that it is not the duty of government to bail out and reward those who act irresponsibly, whether they are big banks or small borrowers. Government assistance to the banking system should be based solely on preventing systemic risk that would endanger the entire financial system and the economy.

But six months later, McCain softened his language. Essentially, he supports bailing out unsuspecting borrowers and punishing the irresponsible ones (lenders, too). Biden leaves some important phrasing out of his quote from the Sept. 5 statement posted on McCain’s campaign Web site:

McCain: As I promised last night, I will fight for those that lost their jobs, savings, and real estate investments. Some Americans have been left behind in the changing economy, and it often seems your government hasn’t even noticed.

The Web site also includes this statement on McCain’s approach to helping those with mortgages: "No taxpayer money should bail out real estate speculators or financial market participants who failed to perform due diligence in assessing credit risks. Any assistance for borrowers should be focused solely on homeowners and any government assistance to the banking system should be based solely on preventing systemic risk."

Too Generous to GIs?

McCain has made his military service record a cornerstone of his campaign. So this attack from Biden had a loud bark, but we find that the factual bite is not quite as strong:

Biden: When George Bush initially opposed a new GI bill that would send a new generation of veterans to college, John McCain stood with him, calling Senator Webb’s effort too generous.

But McCain never actually said the bill was “too generous.” A June report from Congressional Quarterly used the phrase to characterize his and Pentagon officials’ position:

CQ (June 21): GOP Sen. John McCain of Arizona, his party’s presumed presidential nominee, has endorsed a less costly plan that he says is more in line with the thinking in the Pentagon, where officials worry that a too-generous aid program will harm long-term retention rates in the armed forces. But Republicans and the White House cast that plan aside last week in holding up their end of the deal to get through the supplemental war-funding bill.

It’s true McCain actively worked against Virginia Democrat Jim Webb’s proposed GI Bill. And it’s true McCain supported a less-costly Republican version of the bill. A compromise eventually led to a modified version of Webb’s proposal being folded into the fiscal 2008 supplemental spending bill, which was eventually signed into law. McCain did not vote on that bill. According to McCain spokesman Robert Fischer, McCain supported the compromise but was not present for the vote.

McCain may indeed have worried that making GI benefits too attractive could depress retention rates. But we’ve found no evidence that he used the words "too generous," which implies that he didn’t think veterans deserved to be rewarded for their service. In addition, his office issued a press release voicing a different concern with Webb’s bill:

McCain: With respect to the G.I. Bill changes that have been included in this agreement, I am very pleased that the important education benefits that will be provided to our veterans and servicemembers will include the option for those currently serving to transfer educational benefits to their families and in that manner encourage retention. That has always been my primary concern with respect to the Webb bill.

Creative Clippings

Biden was not the first to truncate McCain’s remarks (Stephen Colbert did the same) when he attempted to illustrate that McCain was out of touch with average Americans:

Biden: I believe that’s why Senator McCain could say with a straight face, as recently as this morning, and I quote, “the fundamentals of our economy are strong.”

It’s true that McCain has been using that line and similar ones at least since early 2008, although usually with some qualifying language thrown in, as we’ve noted. And this time, he elaborated during a campaign stop in Orlando, Florida, Sept. 15:

McCain (Sept. 15): You know that there’s been tremendous turmoil in our financial markets and Wall Street. And it is – it’s – people are frightened by these events. Our economy, I think, still, the fundamentals are – of our economy are strong, but these are very, very difficult times. And I promise you, we will never put America in this position again. We will clean up Wall Street. We will reform government. 

That said, we’d also note that later that day, in an interview with NBC affiliate WESH 2, McCain changed his tune slightly:

McCain: Everybody knows I was talking about our workers. They’re the strongest and the best in the world. Those fundamentals are at risk right now because of the greed and excesses of Wall Street.

The next day, in Tampa, McCain repeated his revised remark, but changed "fundamentals" to "foundation":

McCain (Sept. 16): And this – this foundation of our economy, the American worker, strong. But it’s been put at great risk by the greed and mismanagement of Wall Street and Washington. I’ll give you some straight talk, my friends.

Mental telepathy is not our strong suit, but we can say that "fundamentals of our economy" doesn’t seem to us like a synonym for "workers." Biden gets demerits for quote butchering here, but McCain gets a few for shifting his meaning to more politically expedient ground.

Same Old Energy Tax Cut Distortion

Biden repeated yet another misleading statement we’ve previously debunked when he said this about McCain’s plans for corporate tax cuts:

Biden: …he thinks the Exxon-Mobils of the world should get an additional $4 billion dollars a year in tax cuts.

In fact, McCain supports a broad-based reduction in the corporate income tax rate for all companies – not a special break for the oil and gas industry. The left-leaning Center for American Progress Action Fund concluded that McCain’s tax plan would produce a tax cut of roughly $4 billion for the top-five U.S. based oil companies. But it would also produce a tax cut for companies in other sectors of the economy – a fact Biden fails to mention.

–-by Emi Kolawole

Correction: We originally said WESH was an ABC affiliate. It’s the NBC affiliate in Orlando.

Update: Obama campaign spokesman Tommy Vietor sent us this May 26 quote from John McCain, in which McCain describes Webb’s GI Bill proposal as "more generous" than the GOP’s version:

McCain (May 26): I know that my friend and fellow veteran, Senator Jim Webb, an honorable man who takes his responsibility to veterans very seriously, has also offered legislation that would provide more generous benefits.

McCain then points to the differences between the two bills. But, as we mentioned before, this is not the same as saying that the bill was "too generous," nor does it imply that it was unnecessary to reward veterans for their service.

Sources

Bush, George W. and John McCain. "President Participates in Social Security Conversation in Arizona." 21 Mar. 2005.

Clarke, David. "Vets’ Issues Boost Democrats’ Image." Congressional Quarterly Weekly. 21 Jun. 2008.

Lubbes, Sara. "House Bill Aims for Equal Pay for Men and Women." Congressional Quarterly. 27 Jul. 2008.

Demirjian, Karoun. "Senate to Take Up Bill on Pay Discrimination." Congressional Quarterly. 21 Apr. 2008.

Wall Street & Your Wallet; Mutual Attraction; To Drill or Not; Palin by Comparison. 16 Sep. 2008. CNN Newsroom. 17 Sep. 2008.