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A Project of The Annenberg Public Policy Center

CNN/Tea Party Debate

GOP presidential hopefuls exchange false, misleading claims in Florida forum.


The GOP presidential candidates debated for the second time in six days — tossing out a variety of false and misleading claims on everything from Social Security to vaccines for sexually transmitted diseases.

  • Bachmann said an executive order signed by Perry would have “forced” young girls to take a “potentially dangerous drug.” But federal government regulators declared the drug a “safe and effective vaccine” to prevent a sexually transmitted disease that could lead to cervical cancer. Also, the order allowed parents to opt-out.
  • Romney falsely accused Perry of misquoting him on Social Security. Perry correctly characterized a section of Romney’s book in which Romney compared the federal government’s management of Social Security to a banker who steals from his client’s trust fund.
  • Huntsman falsely claimed that Romney’s book labeled Social Security “a fraud.” Romney wrote that Americans have been “defrauded” because of the way the program has been managed, but he did not call it a “fraud.”
  • Santorum claimed Pennsylvania voters in 1994 rewarded his “courage to tell them the truth” about Social Security. But, as Santorum himself acknowledged at the time, he nearly lost that election after his opponent unearthed a video tape of the Republican discussing the need to raise the eligibility age for Social Security.
  • Cain claimed county government retirees in Galveston, Texas, make “at least 50 percent more than they would ever get out of Social Security” because the county opted out of Social Security. But that’s only for initial benefits, and those retirees do not get annual cost-of-living adjustments. Also, not all retirees get such a high initial benefit.
  • Perry cherry-picked job creation numbers when he boasted of creating 1 million jobs as governor “while the current resident of the White House is overseeing the loss of 2.5 million jobs.” Texas has increased jobs by 1 million during Perry’s tenure, but only 95,600 have come since Obama has been president.

There were also several instances in which the candidates reiterated claims that we have already found to be false or misleading on such issues as the 2009 stimulus plan and the 2010 federal health care law.


The debate was held Sept. 12 at the Florida State Fairgrounds Expo Hall in Tampa, and was sponsored by CNN and the Tea Party Express. The audience was made up of guests cleared by local Tea Party groups. Once again, Texas Gov. Rick Perry — who leads in the polls — was at the center of many of the attacks.

‘Dangerous’ Vaccines?

Rep. Michele Bachmann assailed Perry for his 2007 executive order requiring 11- and 12-year-old girls to get a vaccine designed to prevent a sexually transmitted disease that can lead to cervical cancer. She called the vaccine a “potentially dangerous drug.” That claim is contested by the government’s Food and Drug Administration and the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Bachmann: Little girls who have a negative reaction to this potentially dangerous drug don’t get a mulligan. They don’t get a do-over. The parents don’t get a do-over.

Contrary to Bachmann’s characterization of the vaccine as “potentially dangerous,” the Food and Drug Administration and Centers for Disease Control and Prevention have both concluded that Merck’s vaccine, Gardasil, is “a safe and effective vaccine.”

Following extensive review and study, the FDA approved Gardasil in 2006 for use in females age 9 to 26 to protect against cervical, vulvar and vaginal cancers caused by human papillomavirus (HPV) and genital warts caused by HPV. The CDC’s Advisory Committee on Immunization Practices later recommended its use for girls 11 and 12 years old.

Prior to giving approval, the FDA monitored studies on 21,000 girls and women, half of whom were given Gardasil, and found the vaccine to be “highly effective, both in preventing precancerous lesions that often develop into cancer of the cervix, vagina and vulva, and in preventing genital warts caused by these HPV types.”

FDA, Aug. 20, 2009: This vaccine is an important cervical cancer prevention tool that will potentially benefit the health of millions of women. Every year, about 12,000 women are diagnosed with cervical cancer and almost 4,000 die from this disease in the United States. Worldwide, cervical cancer is the second most common cancer in women, causing an estimated 470,000 new cases and 233,000 deaths per year.

On Aug. 19, 2009, the Journal of the American Medical Association published a report coauthored by the FDA and CDC that looked at the 12,424 “adverse events” reported by those vaccinated with Gardasil between the time it was licensed in June 2006 through December 2008. (Merck & Co. reported it distributed over 23 million doses of Gardasil in the United States during that period.) Most of those events — nearly 94 percent — were classified as “non-serious,” such as fainting, headache, nausea and fever. But 772 of the events were described as “serious,” including 32 deaths. However, in the majority of cases with available autopsy or other medical records, the cause of death was attributed to factors other than the vaccine, the FDA reported.

There were also some reports of people getting Guillain-Barre Syndrome, a rare neurological disorder, following vaccination. However, the FDA and CDC concluded, “To date, there is no evidence that Gardasil has increased the rate of GBS above that expected in the population.”

According to the FDA: “Given the large number of doses distributed, it is expected that, by chance alone, serious adverse events and some deaths will be reported in this large population during the time period following vaccinations.”

Despite parents and health care professionals raising questions about the vaccine’s safety, the FDA and CDC concluded, “Gardasil continues to be safe and effective, and its benefits continue to outweigh its risks.”

No Choice?

The Minnesota Republican also was inaccurate when she said that Perry’s order would have meant girls would be “forced to have a government injection.”

Bachmann: I’m a mom. And I’m a mom of three children. And to have innocent little 12-year-old girls be forced to have a government injection through an executive order is just flat out wrong. That should never be done. It’s a violation of a liberty interest.

Later, Bachmann said that “little girls and the parents … didn’t have a choice.”

However, as Perry noted at the debate, his executive order included an opt-out clause.

Perry’s executive order, Feb. 2, 2007: Parents’ Rights. The Department of State Health Services will, in order to protect the right of parents to be the final authority on their children’s health care, modify the current process in order to allow parents to submit a request for a conscientious objection affidavit form via the Internet while maintaining privacy safeguards under current law.

Bachmann also stretched the truth when she said the maker of the vaccine “made millions” because of the order.

Bachmann: I just wanted to add that we cannot forget that in the midst of this executive order there is a big drug company that made millions of dollars because of this mandate. We can’t deny that.

In fact, Perry’s mandate was squashed by the state Legislature, which passed a bill in May 2007 to undo Perry’s order, and Perry did not veto it. So Merck never made any money off Perry’s executive order. But there were certainly big bucks at stake. The retail price of a three-dose series of Gardasil goes for $360, according to the CDC, and Merck reported $722 million in sales of Gardasil in the U.S. in 2010

Bachmann was on firmer ground with her claims that Perry’s former chief of staff was a lobbyist for Merck, and that Merck donated thousands to Perry’s campaign.

Bachmann: What I’m saying is that it’s wrong for a drug company, because the governor’s former chief of staff was the chief lobbyist for this drug company. The drug company gave thousands of dollars in political donations to the governor, and this is just flat-out wrong. The question is, is it about life, or was it about millions of dollars and potentially billions for a drug company?

Perry: The company was Merck, and it was a $5,000 contribution that I had received from them. I raise about $30 million. And if you’re saying that I can be bought for $5,000, I’m offended.

Perry was a little off with his numbers. According to the National Institute on Money in State Politics — which tracks contributions to state legislators on its website followthemoney.org — Perry received $6,000 from Merck & Co. during the 2006 election cycle (the election that preceded his 2007 executive order), out of a campaign total of just over $20 million.

Perry did get $5,000 from Merck & Co. during his 2010 Texas gubernatorial campaign (which brought in a total of nearly $40 million). Merck also donated $10,000 to Perry’s campaign for governor in 2004; and another $5,000 when he ran in 2002.

During the 2006 campaign, Perry also received $10,000 from the pharmaceutical company GlaxoSmithKline, which was developing an alternative vaccine when Perry issued his executive order (the FDA later approved CERVARIX in October 2009). In all, Perry received $214,423 from the pharmaceutical and health products industry in the 2006 campaign, just over 1 percent of his total contributions.

It’s also true that Perry’s one-time chief of staff Mike Toomey was a lobbyist for Merck when Perry made his decision to issue the executive order. Toomey, who contributed nearly $40,000 to Perry’s 2010 campaign for Texas governor, recently cofounded a super PAC called Make Us Great Again, which is backing Perry’s presidential bid.

Social Security: He Wrote, He Wrote

Perry and former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney took turns jawing at each other for what they said about Social Security in their respective books. Former Utah Gov. Jon Huntsman then took both to task for their writings. The bottom line:

  • Romney was wrong when he accused Perry of misquoting him on Social Security. Perry correctly characterized a passage in Romney’s book when he told Romney, “You said if people did it in the private sector it would be called criminal.” Romney did write that if those in the private sector did what government does — take trust fund money and “spend it for other reasons” — they “would go to jail.”
  • Huntsman, however, falsely claimed that Romney’s book labeled Social Security “a fraud.” Romney wrote that Americans have been “defrauded” because of the way it has been managed, but he did not call the program a “fraud.”

Social Security — long known as the “third rail” in politics — has sparked some of the sharpest exchanges in recent debates. In one exchange, Perry and Romney disagreed over a section on Social Security in Romney’s book.

Romney: Look, there are a lot of bright people who agree with you. And that’s your view. I happen to have a different one. I think that Social Security is an essential program that we should change the way we’re funding it. You called it a criminal …

Perry: You said if people did it in the private sector it would be called criminal. That’s in your book.

Romney: Yeah, what I said was … Governor Perry you’ve got to quote me correctly. You said it’s criminal. What I said was Congress taking money out of the Social Security trust fund is like criminal and that is and it’s wrong.

Perry did quote him correctly, and Romney went on to accurately elaborate on Perry’s point. In his book, Romney compared the federal government’s management of Social Security to a banker who steals from his client’s trust fund (pages 172-173):

Romney, “No Apology”: Let’s look at what would happen if someone in the private sector did a similar thing. Suppose two grandparents created a trust fund, appointed a bank as trustee, and instructed the bank to invest the proceeds of the trust fund so as to provide for their grandchildren’s education. Suppose further that the bank used the proceeds for its own purposes, so that when the grandchildren turned eighteen, there was no money for them to go to college. What would happen to the bankers responsible for misusing the money? They would go to jail. But what has happened to the people responsible for the looming bankruptcy of Social Security. They keep returning to Congress every two years.

When Huntsman joined the Social Security debate, he got Romney’s position wrong and Perry’s position right.

Huntsman: You’ve got Governor Romney, who called it a fraud in his book “No Apology.” I don’t know if that was written by Kurt Cobain or not. And then you’ve got Governor Perry, who is calling this a Ponzi scheme.

Romney never called Social Security “a fraud.” He wrote that Americans “have been effectively defrauded out of their Social Security” (page 172).

Santorum’s ‘Courage’ or Historical Revisionism?

Former Sen. Rick Santorum inserted himself into the Social Security debate by claiming Pennsylvania voters in the 1994 Senate race rewarded his “courage to tell them the truth” about the popular program. This is distortion of what actually happened. As Santorum himself acknowledged at the time, he nearly lost the election when Democratic Sen. Harris Wofford belatedly raised Social Security as an issue in the campaign. Wofford relentlessly aired TV ads in the final days that captured Santorum talking to students about wanting to raise the eligibility age for retirement.

Santorum: They ran that on TV for three weeks prior to the election, in the second oldest per capita state in the country. And I still won the election. Why? Because the people of Pennsylvania wanted someone who had the courage to tell them the truth. And I had the courage to tell them the truth.

Santorum doesn’t mention in the debate that the TV ads were effective at chipping away his double-digit lead in the polls and nearly cost him the election. He and his media consultant acknowledged that in post-election interviews at the time. In an interview with the Philadelphia Inquirer, Santorum credited his “grass-roots organization” for putting him over the top, not his stance on Social Security.

Philadelphia Inquirer, Nov. 10, 1994: After videotaping Santorum advocating a raise in the retirement age, the Wofford campaign saturated television with Santorum’s own aggressive image.

Internal Republican polls showed Santorum’s support plunging 12 to 14 points in a matter of days, his candidacy losing the lead he had won with a year’s work.

It was a “shot that would have knocked out a lot of candidates,” Santorum said. “But even before we went up on TV in response, we saw it coming back. I have to believe it was our grass-roots organization, talking to one person at a time.

Santorum’s media consultant, John Brabender, told the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette in a Nov. 10, 1994, story: ”To be very honest with you, if the election had been held last week, Rick would have lost it.” The Post-Gazette also quoted Paul Begala, Wofford’s chief strategist, as saying the only thing that saved Santorum from defeat was the Republican “tsunami” in 1994, when Republicans captured both the House and Senate in the midterm elections — an election that would come to be known as the “Republican Revolution.”

Galveston Plan

Herman Cain was somewhat off base when he touted a privatized alternative to Social Security.

Cain: Today, when people retire in Galveston County, Texas, they retire making at least 50 percent more than they would ever get out of Social Security.

That’s no longer true for everyone. Cain, a businessman, was referring to the retirement plan for Galveston County government workers begun in 1981, when it was still possible for local governments to opt out of Social Security coverage for their employees. It currently covers about 5,500 persons, and the man who administers it for the county told us Cain’s 50 percent figure is far too high for many of them. “If you are low-income [$25,000 a year or less], it’s probably about 20 percent higher than Social Security, on average,” said Rick Gornto, president of First Financial Benefits Inc., which runs the plan for Galveston County. Gornto told us in a telephone interview that Galveston workers making $50,000 and up probably do get at least 50 percent higher initial benefits than they would under Social Security.

Cain may have been relying on a 2005 paper for the conservative National Center for Policy Analysis that said “all workers would do better for the same contribution as Social Security.” But that assumed a 5 percent rate of return, and Gornto said that Galveston’s two retirement funds are currently yielding less than that — 4 percent and 3.75 percent. The Galveston plan is based on a “banking model” in which accumulated contributions are invested in fixed-rate annuities — so lower interest rates lead to lower initial benefits for retirees.

Two studies in 1999 even concluded that initial benefits under the Galveston plan would be lower for many workers, not higher. A study for the Social Security Administration said “Social Security provides a higher initial retirement benefit to low-earning single workers and to married workers at the low, middle and high earnings levels.” And a study by the General Accounting Office (now known as the Government Accountability Office) stated that “[i]n general, low-wage workers and, to a lesser extent, median-wage earners would fare better under Social Security.”

We can’t resolve the wide differences between the various studies. Neither the 2005 NCPA study nor the two 1999 government studies have been updated, and Gornto said he wasn’t aware of any other independent studies. We conclude that Cain relied selectively on the set of figures most favorable to the Galveston plan, but even those are now out of date and too high.

Cain also left out an important fact. Whatever the level of initial benefits, the Galveston plan’s retirement benefits are not indexed for inflation. So Galveston County retirees see the buying power of their monthly checks reduced over the years, while Social Security benefits are subject to an annual cost of living adjustment. Although the Social Security COLA was zero for 2010 and 2011, that followed four yearly increases of 4.1 percent, 3.3 percent, 2.3 percent and 5.8 percent. Since 1984 the average yearly COLA increase for Social Security has been just under 2.9 percent, even averaging in the last two years of no increase.

Texas Pick ‘Em

Perry, Romney and Rep. Ron Paul tussled over job creation in Texas and how much credit Perry should get for the growth in the state. As we’ve said before, job stats are a mixed bag, and the candidates made valid points. Perry, however, offered a misleading one:

Perry: While the current resident of the White House is overseeing the loss of 2.5 million jobs, Texas during my period of governor has created over a million jobs. And we did that during some pretty tough economic period.

While his point is correct — Texas has created jobs while the nation as a whole has lost them — Perry uses an apples-to-oranges comparison that makes his number look better compared with the U.S. overall. During his tenure, as Perry said, Texas’ employment grew by just over a million — 1,081,900 to be exact, between December 2000 and July 2011. The nation lost 1.4 million jobs over that same period, but that’s not the time frame the governor uses.

Instead, Perry refers to job loss under “the current resident of the White House.” During President Obama’s time in office — since January 2009 — the nation has lost 2.4 million jobs, close to Perry’s 2.5 million figure. But in that same time period in Texas, the state only gained 95,600 jobs, a small fraction of the 1 million increase over Perry’s entire tenure.

Either way, Texas comes out ahead, posting job growth while the nation as a whole shows losses. But by using two different time periods, Perry makes a misleading comparison.

Romney claimed that Perry benefited from factors that weren’t his doing. “If you’re dealt four aces that doesn’t make you necessarily a great poker player,” Romney said, explaining that the “aces” were “zero income tax, low regulation, right to work state, oil in the ground and a Republican Legislature.” We cited a few of those factors — oil and low regulation for construction — in a recent article on Texas’ job growth. Romney also said past Texas governors had done better than Perry:

Romney: And by the way, there has been great growth in Texas. Under Ann Richards, job growth was under 2.5 percent a year, under George Bush was 3 percent a year, under Rick Perry it’s been 1 percent a year.

True. These are averages of yearly job growth. Under Ann Richards, job growth was 10.9 percent over four years, and calculated as an average of yearly job growth, it’s 2.6 percent per year. Under Bush, job growth was 20.3 percent over nearly six years, and 3 percent per year on average, as Romney said. And since Perry took office in December 2000, job growth has been 11.3 percent, or about 1 percent per year, according to data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics. However, as we pointed out before, Bush’s tenure came during more prosperous times, so he, too, benefited from factors beyond his control.

Paul also tried to cut down Perry’s claim by saying “170,000 of the jobs were government jobs.” Actually, there were a lot more government jobs than that. Since Perry took office, government jobs in Texas have increased by 287,400, an 18.3 percent jump. Private sector employment has gone up by 10 percent.

Bottom line: Texas has done a great job of adding to its employment numbers while the nation’s numbers have dropped. There’s no doubt about that. But there are caveats. The state’s unemployment rolls have also grown; the job growth hasn’t kept pace with Texas’ growing population.

Texas Taxes

Paul made misleading and questionable claims about taxes and spending in Texas.

Paul: I’m a taxpayer there. My taxes have gone up. Our taxes have doubled since [Perry’s] been in office. Our spending has gone up double. Our debt has gone up nearly triple.

Let’s start with spending under Perry. Paul’s claim echoes an ad from a pro-Bachmann political action committee, which claimed the Perry had “doubled spending in a decade.” But if one adjusts the numbers for inflation and population growth, as the state Legislative Budget Board does, the increase was 21 percent, not a doubling.

We’re not sure how Paul figures his taxes have doubled under Perry. Texas has no state income tax, and its sales tax has held steady at 6.25 percent since July 1, 1990, according to the state comptroller. Local areas can then add tax rates to that sales tax, but no more than 2 percent. Property taxes are also assessed locally. The Texas Association of Counties compiles data on property tax rates, and we don’t see anything close to a doubling of those rates in Paul’s district, which includes parts or all of the counties of Aransas, Brazoria, Calhoun, Chambers, Fort Bend, Galveston, Jackson, Matagorda, Victoria, and Wharton. In fact, the rate has gone down in several of those counties since 2000, but certainly homeowners generally have faced higher assessments, as they have across the country.

The Tax Foundation calculates a state-local tax burden, and there hasn’t been a doubling in those figures either. The foundation puts the rate of the tax burden in Texas at 7.1 percent in 2000 and 7.9 percent in 2009. The total state and local per capita tax payment has gone up by 44 percent, but Texas still has the 45th lowest tax burden in nation — unchanged since Perry became governor in 2000.

When we asked the campaign how taxes have doubled, a spokesman sent us a list of headlines that didn’t support the claim. Instead, they mainly dealt with a business franchise tax, not individual taxes. The business tax increase was used to offset a cut in school property taxes, and one of the articles in the campaign’s list — a Dallas Morning News fact-check item — said “[t]he tax swap created a net tax decrease.”

In the debate, Perry responded to Paul’s claims by saying: “While I’ve been governor, we have cut taxes by $14 billion, 65 different pieces of legislation.” The Perry campaign sent us a list of 67 laws enacted under Perry, many of which provide exemptions for property taxes and sales taxes.

As for a near tripling of the debt, Paul may have been referring to state bond debt. This isn’t the same as the state budget running deficits year to year, like the federal government, that altogether make up the debt. There’s a balanced budget requirement in the state Constitution. Instead, Texas issues highway bonds, bonds for institutions of higher education, and bonds to pay for capital projects. The total state debt outstanding for these bonds went from $13.2 billion in 2000 (see page 15) to $37.82 billion in 2010 (see page iii), according to the annual reports of the Texas Bond Review Board. That would be a near tripling of debt outstanding. If we adjust for inflation, the 2000 figure would be $16.76 billion in 2010 dollars; that would mean the debt more than doubled in inflation-adjusted dollars. We’ll update this section if we receive clarification from the Paul campaign on what he meant.

Update, Sept. 13: Paul’s campaign confirms that he was referring to the state debt outstanding.

Immigration Redux

Romney boasted of his tough stance on illegal immigrants:

Romney: And with regards to giving driver’s licenses to people that are here illegally, that creates a patina of legal status. There are sanctuary cities in some parts of the country.

One of the things I did in my state was to say, look, I’m going to get my state police authorized to be able to enforce immigration laws and make sure those people who we arrest are put in jail, to find out they’re here illegally, we’re going to get them out of here.

This issue gave us a case of deja vu. We looked into it during Romney’s 2008 presidential bid when he was attacking then-candidate Rudy Giuliani, claiming New York City was at “the top of the list” of “sanctuary cities” for aliens. We noted that many news organizations had pointed out that three cities in Massachusetts were “sanctuary cities” when Romney was governor: Cambridge, Orleans and Somerville, according to statements by Somerville’s mayor and a Congressional Research Service report. We found no evidence that Romney took a hard stance against those cities’ policies as governor.

It’s true that Romney opposed driver’s licenses for illegal immigrants and vetoed in-state tuition at public colleges and universities for illegal immigrants, and we noted that Romney also signed an agreement with the federal government to allow state troopers to enforce federal immigration laws. But that was signed in the waning days of Romney’s time in office, six months after he first promoted the idea, and was promptly rescinded by his successor.

Furthermore, Romney’s tough position in immigration came about only after he decided to run for president. A March 14, 2007, column in the Boston Herald mocked Romney for his “POC (pre-official candidacy) and AOC (after-official candidacy)” positions on immigration. As evidence of the softer stance he held POC, Herald columnist and former GOP political operative Virginia Buckingham writes:

Buckingham, March 14, 2007: Back in 1994, when the U.S. Senate, not the Oval Office, was in Romney’s sights, he said in those now infamous (on YouTube anyway) debates with Sen. Edward Kennedy: “I do not believe that we should deny all services to people who come here from across the border.”

And more recently, but still POC, Romney told the Lowell Sun in March 2006, “I don’t believe in rounding up 11 million people and forcing them at gunpoint from our country. With these 11 million people, let’s have them registered, know who they are. Those who’ve been arrested or convicted of crimes shouldn’t be here; those that are here paying taxes and not taking government benefits should begin a process toward application for citizenship, as they would from their home country.”

Been There, Done That

The candidates reiterated several false and misleading statements that we’ve checked before. Among them:

  • Perry said that Obama “had $800 billion worth of stimulus in the first round of stimulus. It created zero jobs.” Not true. The Congressional Budget Office has estimated that more people were employed because of the stimulus than would have been without it. For the second quarter of 2011, CBO said the stimulus “[i]ncreased the number of people employed by between 1.0 million and 2.9 million.”
  • Romney claimed that the Massachusetts health care law only affected 9 percent of the state’s population, while the federal law affects everyone. Romney: “We dealt with the people in our state that were uninsured, some 9 percent. [Obama’s] bill deals with 100 percent of the people.” As we wrote after the last debate, both laws include an individual mandate, requiring everyone to have insurance.
  • Bachmann said that raising the debt ceiling was a “blank check” for Obama. Bachmann: “I was one of the only people in Washington that said do not raise the debt ceiling. Don’t give the president of the United States another $2.4 trillion blank check.” But this wasn’t a blank check at all. The borrowed funds go to pay obligations that Congress had previously approved, and the measure called for substantial spending cuts as well.
  • Huntsman made a misleading boast about Utah jobs: “Utah, the great state of Utah, was No. 1 in job creation at 5.9 percent during my years as governor.” Huntsman doesn’t use the data most economists cite in measuring job growth. By the most common measurement, payroll numbers, Utah was No. 4 in job creation.
  • Former House Speaker Newt Gingrich went too far in bragging that he “helped balance the budget for four straight years.” He was only in Congress for two of those budget years, as we’ve pointed out before.

— by Eugene Kiely, Robert Farley, Lori Robertson, Brooks Jackson and D’Angelo Gore


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