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FactChecking Iowa Debate

GOP presidential hopefuls make some false and misleading statements about Obama -- and each other.


Republican presidential candidates squared off in Ames, Iowa, on Aug. 11, offering claims, criticism and arguments. We found some false and misleading statements among them:

  • Herman Cain denied ever saying that communities have the right to ban mosques. But he did, in fact, say that.
  • Former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney made the misleading claim that his state's "unemployment was below the federal level three of the four years I was in office." Yes, but the state rate was lower than the national rate before he took office and higher when he left.
  • Romney also falsely suggested President Obama has never held a job, saying: "I think in order to create jobs, it's helpful to have had a job."
  • Michele Bachmann wrongly said that raising the debt ceiling gave Obama a "blank check." But the set amount of money will be used to pay obligations Congress has authorized.
  • Ron Paul said the CIA told him that there is "no evidence" Iran is "working on" a nuclear weapon. There's no solid proof, but the International Atomic Energy Agency says there are "possible military dimensions" to Iran's nuclear program.
  • Bachmann also said that Tim Pawlenty "wanted" to institute an individual mandate requiring people to buy insurance in Minnesota. Pawlenty said he was "open to" the idea, but that's not the same as wanting to do it.
  • Newt Gingrich said that one of the moderators was "handpicking" quotes "that fit your premise." But the Fox News anchor quoted Gingrich's comments on Libya accurately.
  • Rick Santorum exaggerated a bit in saying the U.S. borrows "42 cents of every dollar." The figure is currently 37 cents.

Read on to the Analysis for a full explanation of our findings.


The debate included Minnesota Rep. Michele Bachmann, businessman Herman Cain, former Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich, former Utah Gov. Jon Huntsman Jr., Texas Rep. Ron Paul, former Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty, former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney and former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum. This was the second major GOP debate, and it was sponsored by Fox News, The Washington Examiner and the Iowa Republican Party.

Cain and Mosque Banning

Herman Cain wrongly claimed that he never said communities have the right to ban mosques.

Fox News' Chris Wallace, one of four debate moderators, asked Cain about "questionable statements" he has made during the campaign.

Wallace, Aug 11: You said that communities have the right to ban Muslims from building mosques, before you later apologized. You have stated that you do not have a firm plan yet as to what you would do in Afghanistan until you talk to the generals. You at one point in the campaign didn't know about the so- called Palestinian right of return during a big debate about the Mideast peace issues.How do you reassure people that you know enough to be president of the United States, sir?

Cain claimed Wallace "misquoted" his position on mosques.

Cain, Aug. 11: The first point that you raised, about saying that communities have a right to ban mosques, no, that’s not exactly what I said. Unfortunately, the people who helped you put that together have misquoted me.

But Cain had previously said that communities have the right to ban mosques. In fact, he said it in an interview with Chris Wallace. On July 17, on "Fox News Sunday," Wallace and Cain had this exchange:

Wallace, July 17: But couldn't any community then say we don't want a mosque in our community?

Cain: They could say that.

Chris, let's go back to the fundamental issue that the people are basically saying that they are objecting to. They are objecting to the fact that Islam is both religion and of set of laws, Sharia law. That's the difference between any one of our other traditional religions where it's just about religious purposes.

The people in the community know best. And I happen to side with the people in the community.

Wallace: So, you're saying that any community, if they want to ban a mosque.

Cain: Yes, they have the right to do that. That's not discriminating based upon religion — against that particular religion.

Cain clearly states twice that communities have a right to block construction of mosques.

As both the moderator and the candidate acknowledged, Cain has since issued an apology for those remarks.

Cain Press Release, July 27: I am truly sorry for any comments that may have betrayed my commitment to the U.S. Constitution and the freedom of religion guaranteed by it. Muslims, like all Americans, have the right to practice their faith freely and peacefully.

But an apology does not change the fact that Cain was not misquoted, and he was wrong to claim he was.

No Massachusetts Miracle

Mitt Romney said that his state's "unemployment was below the federal level three of the four years I was in office." That's true, but misleading. The state's annual unemployment rate was lower than the national average the year he took office and higher when he left.

Romney, Aug. 11: And, by the way, as the governor of Massachusetts, when I came in, jobs were being lost month after month after month. We turned that around. We were able to add jobs, balance our budget and get Massachusetts back on track. And, by the way, our unemployment was below the federal level three of the four years I was in office.

Massachusetts' annual average unemployment rate was 5.3 percent in 2002, the year before Romney took office. That was lower — by one-half of a percentage point — than the national average, which was 5.8 percent in 2002. During Romney's four years as governor, the state's unemployment rate did go down, but at a slower rate than the national average. In 2006, the last year Romney held office, the Massachusetts unemployment rate was 5 percent — higher than the national rate of 4.6 percent.

So, during Romney's four years in office, the state's annual unemployment rate went from 5.3 percent to 5 percent, while the national unemployment rate fell from 5.8 percent to 4.6 percent.

We first wrote about this claim in a July 27 Wire post, "Romney's Economic Exaggerations."

Working for a Living

Romney also suggested that Obama has never had a job, but that's clearly not true.

Romney, Aug. 11: He just doesn't understand how the economy works, because he hasn't lived in the real economy. I think in order to create jobs, it's helpful to have had a job.

Normally, the criticism of Obama is that he has never managed a business — a point Romney made earlier this year when saying, "I like President Obama, but he doesn't have a clue how jobs are created." But in the Republican debate, Romney went too far in implying Obama hasn't had a job.

Obama's low-paid work as a community organizer with public housing residents in Chicago has been well-documented. The man who recruited Obama told U.S. News & World Report that he was hired at $10,000 a year, with another $2,000 allowance to get a car.

After graduating from law school, Obama taught at the University of Chicago Law School and worked as a lawyer for the Chicago firm Miner, Barnhill & Galland. And, of course, Obama spent several years in public service as a state senator before becoming a U.S. senator and then president, the "job" for which Romney is now applying.

Bachmann Fires Blanks

Michele Bachmann repeated a false claim that raising the debt ceiling is giving Obama a $2.4 trillion "blank check." She also adds another misleading statement that the debt-ceiling agreement — known as the Budget Control Act of 2011 — will result in only "$21 billion in illusory cuts."

Bachmann, Aug. 11: It was very important that we not raise the debt ceiling, because — consider what happened. The Congress gave Barack Obama a blank check for $2.4 trillion. What did the American people get in return? $21 billion in illusory cuts.

As we have written before, a "blank check" means unlimited spending. But the administration is limited under the agreement to new borrowing of between $2.1 trillion and $2.4 trillion, depending on future congressional actions, as the nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office explained in an Aug. 1 analysis of the deal. Also, the administration cannot spend money without congressional authorization. The borrowed money will go to pay obligations Congress has already approved or will approve.

As for the "$21 billion in illusory cuts," Bachmann is referring to the estimated impact on the federal deficit in the first year. The CBO estimates that the debt-ceiling agreement would reduce the federal deficit by $2.1 trillion over 10 years, including $756 billion over that time by capping discretionary spending.

'No Evidence' of Nuclear Weapons in Iran?

Ron Paul said that the CIA has told him that there is "no evidence" Iran is "working on" a nuclear weapon. It's true that there is no definitive proof, but the International Atomic Energy Agency has found evidence of "possible military dimensions" to the country's civilian nuclear program.

Wallace, Aug. 11: As for Iran's nuclear ambitions, you wrote this: "One can understand why they might want to become nuclear capable, if only to defend themselves and to be treated more respectfully." Is that your policy towards Iran?

Paul: Well, even our own CIA gives me this information, that they have no evidence that they're working on a weapon.

We don't know what the CIA told Paul. But there is plenty of concern in the international community about Iran's nuclear intentions. The International Atomic Energy Agency issued a report in May that said there are "possible military dimensions" to Iran's civilian nuclear program. The New York Times wrote that "the agency’s concerns about the arms evidence" prompted its director general to request "prompt access" to Iranian nuclear facilities. 

New York Times, May 30: The nine-page report raised questions about whether Iran has sought to investigate seven different kinds of technology ranging from atomic triggers and detonators to uranium fuel. Together, the technologies could make a type of atom bomb known as an implosion device, which is what senior staff members of the I.A.E.A. have warned that Iran is able to build.

This month, former State Department adviser Ray Takeyh wrote an op-ed in the Washington Post that carried the headline, "The march to a nuclear Iran." An adjunct professor at Georgetown University and senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations, Takeyh wrote that it is a matter of time before Iran has the ability to detonate a nuclear bomb.

Takeyh, Aug. 3: Exact estimates vary, but in the next few years Iran will be in position to detonate a nuclear device.

We are not saying Paul is wrong. We don't know if he is or not. But viewers may have been led to believe that the U.S. and others have no concerns or should have no concerns about Iran's nuclear capabilities, and that's not the case.

Pawlenty 'Wanted' a Mandate?

Bachmann claimed that Pawlenty "praised and wanted to require Minnesotans to purchase the unconstitutional individual mandate in health care." We have been unable to find any instance of Pawlenty saying he wanted an individual mandate, requiring Minnesota residents to buy health insurance. In fact, a plan he submitted to the state Legislature did not have a mandate. We have asked the Bachmann campaign for support for this claim, but we have not received a response.

It's true that Pawlenty was more amenable to the idea of a mandate in the past than he has been recently in his criticisms of the federal health care law and the Massachusetts overhaul, which was signed into law by Romney. In 2006, as governor of Minnesota, Pawlenty said requiring people to buy insurance was "a worthy goal and one that we're intrigued by and I think at least open to." He also said that a "mandate by itself is potentially helpful" but not a solution on its own.

That's a much nicer assessment of a mandate than Pawlenty has expressed lately. He signed on to the legal fight governors launched against the federal mandate, and he has criticized requiring Americans to buy coverage. "Forcing citizens to purchase a good or service is a clear infringement on our personal liberties and must be stopped," he said in a December 2010 press release.

But Pawlenty being "open to" and "intrigued by" a mandate in 2006 is not the same thing as wanting "to require Minnesotans to purchase the unconstitutional individual mandate," as Bachmann put it. And we have not found evidence that Pawlenty "wanted" this requirement.

The Minneapolis Star Tribune — which documented the shift in Pawlenty's views of the measures in the federal and Massachusetts laws — noted that a 2007 health care plan proposed by Pawlenty did not include a mandate. The plan didn't advance through the state Legislature.

Gingrich Flip-Flop on Libya?

Newt Gingrich argued that his words were being cherry-picked, when Fox News anchor Bret Baier asked him about an apparent flip-flop on taking military action in Libya. But Baier presented Gingrich's words accurately. The former House speaker has said that his remarks were different because of actions Obama had taken, but that's not exactly clear from the original interviews.

Baier asked:

Baier, Aug. 11: Speaker Gingrich, as President Obama was deciding what to do in Libya, you were asked what you would do. You said, quote, "exercise a no-fly zone this evening, communicate to the Libyan military that Gadhafi was gone, and that sooner they switched sides the more likely they were to survive."

After the president launched military action a few days later you said, quote, "I would not have intervened. I think there were other ways to affect Gadhafi."

Are you certain about the way forward in Libya and where it stands now?

Gingrich called this "a gotcha question," and said that two weeks before the first comment, he had told Fox News' Greta Van Susteren that "we should … go in covertly, use Egyptian and other allies not use American forces." Gingrich then said that he was responding to Obama's change in position:

Gingrich, Aug. 11: I said that thing specifically after the president that day announced gloriously to the world as president of the United States that Gadhafi has to go. And I said if the president of the United States is serious about Gadhafi going, this is what we should do. The following interview came after the same president said, well, I didn't really mean go meant go, I meant go meant maybe we should have a humanitarian intervention. Now, the fact that I was commenting on Fox about a president who changes his opinion every other day ought to be covered by a Fox commentator using all the things I said, not handpicking the ones that fit your premise.

In a March 7 interview with Van Susteren, Gringrich said that the U.S. should say "we're intervening" and "exercise a no-fly zone." On March 23, he told Matt Lauer on NBC's "Today" show that "I would not have intervened." He added that "allies in the region" could have helped, but he "would not have used American and European forces."

Before the March 7 interview, on Feb. 24, Gingrich did suggest covert operations, as he said in the debate, telling Van Susteren that the U.S. should "be encouraging" people in the Libyan military to replace Gadhafi. But he did not mention using "Egyptians," and instead said that the U.S. "with the Europeans" should "isolate and cut off mercenaries from being hired."

In a Facebook posting, Gingrich says it was Obama's declaration on March 3 — that "Gadhafi has lost the legitimacy to lead and he must leave" — that caused him to call for the no-fly zone and greater intervention. And his March 7 remarks do call for more action than his Feb. 24 statements. But he presented a much softer stance in the "Today" show interview than he did back in February.

Here's Gingrich's first statement in February:

Gingrich, Feb. 24: I would hope that we would be encouraging the non-Gadhafi elements of the military to replace Gadhafi. And I would hope that with the Europeans, we would isolate and cut off mercenaries from being hired to come in and kill innocent civilians. …

I would first of all make quite clear that mercenaries should expect that they'll be held accountable. I would second send signals that we would actively support any effort to replace Gadhafi. And I would third move aggressively to condemn actions by Gadhafi and make him a persona non grata and accelerate the rate at which he and his family have to leave the country. …

I don't think we need to do any military force. I think that if people in the military in Libya knew that they had friends in America, I think the Libyan military would rapidly decide to replace Gadhafi.

On March 7, Gingrich made similar remarks to Van Susteren, after the administration had been pressuring those close to Gadhafi to turn on him and Obama publicly warned those associates that they "will be held accountable for whatever violence continues to take place there." The administration was debating a no-fly zone, and Gingrich said he would institute one.

Gingrich, March 7: Exercise a no-fly zone this evening, communicate to the Libyan military that Gadhafi was gone and that the sooner they switch sides, the more like they were to survive, provided help to the rebels to replace him. … This is a moment to get rid of him. Do it. Get it over with. …

All we have to say is that we think that slaughtering your own citizens is unacceptable and that we're intervening. And we don't have to send troops. All we have to do is suppress his air force, which we could do in minutes. And then we have to say publicly that he is gone, that the military should switch sides now, and we should help the rebels.

On the "Today" show on March 23, he criticized using humanitarian reasons as the standard for intervention, said he "would not have intervened" and he "would not have used American and European forces."

Gingrich, March 23: I think that, you know, two wars in Iraq and Afghanistan is a lot. I think that the problems we have in Pakistan, Egypt, Yemen, go around the region. We could get engaged by this standard in all sorts of places. …

I think that now — let me draw a distinction. I would not have intervened. I think there were a lot of other ways to affect Gadhafi. I think there are a lot of allies in the region that we could have worked with. I would not have used American and European forces, bombing Arab and that country.

It's clearly a change in position, but we understand Gingrich may have changed his view as events occurred. We'll leave it to readers to judge whether his explanation for the shift is sufficient.

Borrowing, One Penny at a Time

Rick Santorum exaggerated, slightly, when saying that the U.S. borrows 42 cents of every dollar it spends.

Santorum, Aug. 11: Of course we have to raise the debt ceiling at some point. We have — we have — we're borrowing 42 cents of every dollar, 42 cents of every dollar. You're going to cut 42 cents of every dollar?

But the U.S. isn't borrowing quite that much. According to the latest CBO Monthly Budget Review, the country is borrowing nearly 37 cents of every dollar. As we wrote in our July 15 article "Fiscal FactCheck," the U.S. borrowed 37 cents of every dollar last year, and 40 cents in fiscal 2009.

So, currently Santorum is off by 5 cents on the dollar. How much is that? In April the CBO estimated (table 1.1) that the U.S. will spend about $3.655 trillion this fiscal year, so five cents on a dollar is about $183 billion less in borrowing than Santorum claimed.

— by Lori Robertson, Eugene Kiely, Scott Blackburn and Lalita Clozel


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