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A Project of The Annenberg Public Policy Center

Fanciful ‘Facts’ At Fox News Debate

We find the fiction from the Republican candidates' debate in Orlando.


Nine Republican presidential candidates debated for two hours in Orlando, Fla., and they served up more exaggerations and falsehoods — about Obama, each other and even Thomas Jefferson.

  • Perry claimed Romney supports Obama’s Race to the Top education initiative. In fact, while Romney has praised some of the program’s goals, he said those kinds of issues ought to be handled at the state level, not federal.
  • Romney falsely accused Obama of saying “nothing about the Palestinians launching rockets into Israel” during a 2009 speech to the United Nations. In fact, Obama said those who suffer include “the Israeli girl in Sderot who closes her eyes in fear that a rocket will take her life in the middle of the night.”
  • Perry falsely claimed Romney had once written that “Romneycare” is “exactly what the American people needed.” Romney never wrote that. On the contrary, he said after he signed the bill that “certain aspects” of the state’s law might work “better in some states than others.”
  • Bachmann quoted Thomas Jefferson in defense of her previous assertion that separation of church and state is a “myth.” But the 1802 letter she cited is the very one in which Jefferson said the First Amendment erects “a wall of separation between Church & State.”
  • Perry said the U.S.-Mexico border needs more “boots on the ground” to stop illegal immigration, and claimed that “the federal government has not engaged in this at all.” In fact, the number of border security agents has more than doubled over the last decade.
  • Cain said the EPA has “gone wild” and will regulate “dust” as of Jan. 1. But there’s no new dust regulation set to go into effect on that day, and EPA says it has no plans for one.

And we found other factual problems as well. Former New Mexico Gov. Johnson claimed the government is borrowing 43 cents of every dollar spent. It’s really 37 cents. Bachmann denied suggesting the HPV vaccine can cause mental retardation or is “potentially dangerous.” And Cain even resurrected the old “death panel” falsehood about the new health care law, claiming he would be “dead under Obamacare” because “bureaucrats” would somehow have delayed diagnosis and treatment of the cancer he fought in 2006.


The debate was held Sept. 22 before a live audience at the Orange County Convention Center in Orlando, Fla.  It was sponsored by Fox News (which carried the two-hour event live) and Google. Some questions were submitted by voters via Internet videos. Nine candidates took part: Texas Gov. Rick Perry, former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney, Minnesota Rep. Michele Bachmann, Texas Rep. Ron Paul, former House Speaker Newt Gingrich, former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum, businessman Herman Cain, former Utah Gov. Jon Huntsman and former New Mexico Gov. Gary Johnson.

Does Romney Support Obama’s Race to the Top?

In one of the more pointed exchanges, Perry challenged Romney’s conservative credentials, claiming Romney was the only Republican candidate who supports the hallmark of President Obama’s education policy, Race to the Top.

Here’s the exchange during the debate:

Perry: I happen to believe we ought to be promoting school choice all across this country. I think school — the voucher system, charter schools all across this country. But there is one person on this stage that is for Obama’s Race to the Top and that is Governor Romney. He said so just this last week. . . .

Being in favor of the Obama Race to the Top and that is not conservative.

Romney: I’m not sure exactly what he’s saying. I don’t support any particular program that he’s describing.

So does Romney support Race to the Top or not? It’s true that a Politico story about Romney’s town hall speech in Miami on Sept. 21 reported that he “praised Obama’s education secretary for the Race to the Top program.” But here’s Romney’s full statement, which makes clear he was praising the goals but criticizing the way the administration is pursuing them at the federal level.

Romney: I think Secretary Duncan has done some good things. He’s the current Secretary of Education. I hope that’s not heresy in the room. But he, for instance, has a program called Race to the Top which encourages schools to have more choice, more testing of kids, more evaluation of teachers. Those are things I think make some sense. But for me, get that back to the state level.

The last sentence makes clear that while Romney supports some of the ideas behind Race to the Top, he thinks those educational policies ought to be handled at the state, rather than federal, level — which mirrors the traditional conservative view.

We should note that in 2010, Massachusetts won $250 million in Race to the Top funds (though Romney wasn’t governor at the time); Texas, under Perry, is one of several states that have never competed for the grants.

We should also note that Romney hasn’t always been against federal education initiatives. When Romney last ran for president, he said during a Republican debate on May 15, 2007, that he supported President Bush’s “No Child Left Behind.”

Asked for an instance in which “learning from experience led you to change a position that is less popular with the Republican base,” Romney responded:

Romney, 2007: One is No Child Left Behind. I’ve taken a position where, once upon a time, I said I wanted to eliminate the Department of Education. That was my position when I ran for Senate in 1994. That’s very popular with the base.

As I’ve been a governor and seen the impact that the federal government can have holding down the interest of the teachers’ unions and instead putting the interests of the kids and the parents and the teachers first, I see that the Department of Education can actually make a difference. So I supported No Child Left Behind. I still do. I know there are a lot in my party that don’t like it, but I like testing in our schools. I think it allows us to get better schools, better teachers; allows us to let our kids have the kind of hope that they ought to have.

And one last note: Romney wasn’t the only candidate on the stage to ever say something nice about Race to the Top. In the Sept. 7 Republican debate in California, Newt Gingrich said, “I liked very much the fact that it [Race to the Top] talked about charter schools. It’s the one place I found to agree with President Obama.”

Romney’s False Rocket Claim

Romney attacked Obama’s stance on Israel, but one claim went too far:

Romney, Sept. 22: The president went about this all wrong. He went around the world and apologized for America. He — he addressed the United Nations in his inaugural address and chastised our friend, Israel, for building settlements and said nothing about Hamas launching thousands of rockets into Israel.

Romney is referring to President Obama’s first-ever address to the United Nations in September 2009. It is true that Obama criticized Israel for building settlements. He said, “[W]e continue to emphasize that America does not accept the legitimacy of continued Israeli settlements.” But Romney’s claim that Obama said “nothing” about rockets is untrue. Obama not only said, “We continue to call on Palestinians to end incitement against Israel,” he made specific reference to suffering caused by rocket attacks:

Obama, Sept. 2009: We must remember that the greatest price of this conflict is not paid by us. It’s not paid by politicians. It’s paid by the Israeli girl in Sderot who closes her eyes in fear that a rocket will take her life in the middle of the night. It’s paid for by the Palestinian boy in Gaza who has no clean water and no country to call his own.

Furthermore, Obama again denounced the rocket attacks only the day before the GOP debate. In his most recent address to the United Nations on Sept. 21, 2011, he said:

Obama, Sept. 2011: Let us be honest with ourselves: Israel is surrounded by neighbors that have waged repeated wars against it. Israel’s citizens have been killed by rockets fired at their houses and suicide bombs on their buses. Israel’s children come of age knowing that throughout the region, other children are taught to hate them.

And it’s worth noting that official U.S. disapproval of Israeli settlements dates back before Obama. In June 2008, then-Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice said that Israel’s plan to build 1,300 homes in East Jerusalem was “simply not helpful to building confidence” in the peace negotiations. She also said that “the continued building and the settlement activity has the potential to harm the negotiations going forward.” Israel’s plan to expand settlements in June 2008 also received criticisms from the Bush White House and the United Nations.

Perry vs. ‘Romneycare’

Perry exaggerated when he claimed that Romney’s own economic adviser called the Massachusetts health care plan “an absolute bust.” The adviser, R. Glenn Hubbard, never used that phrase in the paper he co-authored last year, and his criticism dealt only with the impact on employer-sponsored insurance premiums, not the entire plan.

In that same exchange, Perry was correct that Romney edited his paperback version of “No Apology” to remove a reference to the Massachusetts plan serving as a model for the nation. But he went too far when suggesting that Romney would like to impose his state’s health care plan on the federal level. The evidence shows that Romney saw his plan as a potential model for other states to replicate, but tailored to their own unique situations.

Perry: Speaking of books and talking about being able to have things in your books, back and forth, your economic adviser talked about Romneycare and how that was an absolute bust. And it was exactly what Obamacare was all about.

As a matter of fact, between books, your hard copy book, you said it was exactly what the American people needed, to have that Romneycare given to them as you had in Massachusetts. Then in your paperback, you took that line out. So, speaking of not getting it straight in your book sir, that would be a —

Fox News’ Megyn Kelly: Governor Romney?…

Romney: I actually wrote my book, and in my book I said no such thing.

Romney did not address the claim about his economic adviser, but we will.

Perry’s campaign site identifies the economic adviser as Hubbard, who became an adviser to Romney earlier this month. The Perry campaign cites a 2010 paper co-authored by Hubbard called “The Effect of Massachusetts’ Health Reform on Employer-Sponsored Insurance Premiums.” It is true that Hubbard and his colleagues concluded that “health reform in Massachusetts increased single coverage employer-sponsored insurance premiums by about 6 percent, or $262,” from 2004 to 2006. It also said “policy makers should be concerned” about potential for “health reform” to increase private insurance premiums — while adding that “the data do not permit firm conclusions” about the impact on premiums.

Hubbard doesn’t call the state’s health care law “an absolute bust”; that’s Perry’s interpretation and it goes too far.

As for the editing of “No Apology,” Perry said the hardcover book originally said the Massachusetts plan that Romney signed is “exactly what the American people needed,” but that this was edited out for the paperback version. Romney said, “I said no such thing.” Romney is right.

The line that was removed was this: “We can accomplish the same thing for everyone in the country.” That’s not the same thing as saying the plan is “exactly what the American people needed,” as Perry incorrectly claims. That would be saying the same plan should apply everywhere, like the federal health care law. And that’s not what Romney’s sentence said.

Shortly after he signed the state law, Romney was asked in an April 12, 2006, interview on MSNBC’s “Hardball with Chris Matthews” if it could “work for the country.” Romney said that was up to other states.

Matthews, April 12, 2006: Will the Massachusetts effort that you’ve just signed now, will it work for the country?

Romney: Well, it will work for Massachusetts, and that’s of course the thing that I had to focus on. There are certain aspects of it that I think would work across the country, perhaps better in some states than others. Of course the great thing about federalism is you let a state try it and see how it works before you spread it out.

Bachmann, Jefferson and the Church-State ‘Myth’

Defending her earlier claim that it was a “myth” to teach children that “there is separation of church and state,” Bachmann gave a misleading interpretation of Thomas Jefferson’s words. “I think that Thomas Jefferson stated it best,” Bachmann said.

Bachmann: And when Jefferson wrote a letter to the Danbury Baptists, the Danbury Baptists wanted to know, will you have a national church in the United States? He said no, because we believe in freedom of conscience, we believe in freedom of religious liberty, and expression, and speech.

She referred to a famous letter Jefferson wrote to the Danbury Baptist Association in the state of Connecticut on Jan. 1, 1802. But what Bachmann left out — which was directly relevant to the question — is that Jefferson’s letter also said this (with our emphasis added):

Thomas Jefferson, Jan. 1, 1802: I contemplate with sovereign reverence that act of the whole American people which declared that their legislature should “make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof,” thus building a wall of separation between Church & State.

So Jefferson actually stated the very opinion that Bachmann had dismissed as a “myth,” that the First Amendment amounts to “a wall of separation” between church and state. In fact, Jefferson first wrote that it was a wall of “eternal” separation, but dropped that word in the final version of the letter, according to obliterated text recovered by the FBI laboratory, which studied Jefferson’s original draft at the request of the Library of Congress. Supreme Court justices and legal scholars still debate whether Jefferson’s opinion is a proper interpretation of the First Amendment, but we suspect he’d be the first to contradict Bachmann’s “myth” claim.

Bachmann’s HPV Claim

Bachmann attempted to deny some of her own words about an anti-cancer vaccine:

Fox News’ Chris Wallace: [Y]ou suggested that the vaccine was linked to mental retardation and you said that it could be, quote, “potentially be a very dangerous drug.”

. . . Bachmann: Well, first I didn’t make that claim nor did I make that statement. Immediately after the debate, a mother came up to me and she was visibly shaken and heart broken because of what her daughter had gone through. I so I only related what her story was.

We’ll let readers decide for themselves whether Bachmann’s careless repetition of a unverified, secondhand story about mental retardation amounts to a suggestion that the vaccine caused it. But Bachmann did indeed call the HPV vaccine a “potentially dangerous drug” during the Sept. 12 CNN/Tea Party Express debate, so she can’t truthfully deny making that statement.

Perry’s Border Boot Shortage

Perry, arguing that a fence won’t stop illegal immigration, called for more “boots on the ground” instead. But he strayed far from the truth when he also claimed the government has “not engaged in this at all.”

Perry: You put the boots on the ground. We know how to make this work. You put the boots on the ground. …

Santorum: But it’s not working, Governor.

Perry: No, it’s not working because the federal government has not engaged in this at all.

That’s not true. The Congressional Research Service documented a remarkable and steady rise in the number of border security agents spanning the Clinton, Bush and Obama administrations.

Congressional Research Service, March 3, 2010: Border Patrol agent manpower assigned to the southwest border has been increasing steadily since the early 1990s. In 1992, there were 3,555 agents assigned to the southern border, by 2000 that number had increased by 141 percent to 8,580. Since 2000, the number of agents assigned to the southern border has continued to increase, more than doubling once more to 20,119 agents at the end of FY2009.

And Obama’s proposed 2012 budget called for increasing the the number of Border Patrol agents yet again, to 21,370.

Furthermore — while not strictly a border issue — deportations and criminal prosecution of illegal immigrants are also way up, according to the Transactional Records Access Clearinghouse, or TRAC, a data-gathering and research organization at Syracuse University.

The number of deportations initiated by the government in immigration courts went from 1,577,171 in the decade before 9/11 to 2,279,305 in the decade since, according to TRAC data (Table 1). The pace of those deportation proceedings has grown under Obama. The number of government deportation proceedings in immigration court went from an average of 219,941 per year under Bush to 246,572 per year under Obama (Table 2).

Criminal prosecutions initiated by the Border Patrol have also increased significantly over the last five years, from 26,918 in 2006 to 73,742 in 2010 (hitting record highs under Obama), according to TRAC data (Table 1).

“Deportation and criminal enforcement (of illegal immigration) by the Obama administration is very, very vigorous,” said David Burnham, co-director of TRAC.

EPA to Regulate Dust?

Herman Cain claimed that the Environmental Protection Agency is planning to regulate dust beginning Jan. 1, 2012. However, the EPA administrator has said that the agency currently has no plans to expand its regulations of particulate matter.

Cain: … the EPA has gone wild. The fact that they have a regulation that goes into effect January 1, 2012, to regulate dust says that they’ve gone too far.

There is currently no regulation going into effect that day, the agency says.

The EPA is required by the Clean Air Act to periodically review the scientific information available on particulate matter to determine if changes are needed to the National Ambient Air Quality Standard for Particulate Matter. That substance, which includes soil and dust particles, is considered to be a risk to public health, according to the EPA.

Earlier this year, the EPA’s Office of Air Quality Planning and Standards released a report with its final recommendation that the agency move to tighten the restrictions on particulate matter that are currently in place. But the panel’s recommendations have been met with much opposition from farmers who say that increased regulations could hurt their industry. And several members of Congress have introduced legislation to block any attempt at implementing stricter limits.

But, so far, the EPA has not decided to take any particular action on the panel’s recommendations.

During congressional testimony back in March, EPA Administrator Lisa Jackson said that it was a “mischaracterization” to claim that the “EPA is attempting to expand regulation of dust from farms,” saying that the agency had “no plans to do so.” Jackson had said that she would make a final determination this past July on what the EPA would do, but has yet to do so.

When we asked the agency about Cain’s claim that the regulation would begin on Jan. 1, 2012, an EPA spokeswoman sent us the following statement: “While EPA is mandated by the CAA to review air quality standards every five years, and that review is currently ongoing, we have no plans to put stricter standards in place.”

Other Factual Problems

Bad Borrowing Math: Former Gov. Johnson claimed that “we’re borrowing 43 cents out of every dollar,” and Fox News’  Megyn Kelly said (in asking a question) that “we borrow 40 cents of every dollar we spend.” Neither is quite true.

In fact, the most recent monthly Treasury statement shows the figure was 37.4 cents in fiscal 2010 and also 37.4 cents for the first 11 months of the current fiscal year (which ends Sept. 30). Those are big numbers to be sure, but Republicans persist in exaggerating.

Bachmann, “Obamacare” and Jobs: Bachmann said a recent study from UBS “said the number-one reason why employers aren’t hiring is because of Obamacare.” Not quite.

The “study”  to which she referred was actually a Sept. 19 report by UBS Investment Research that stated the opinion of the analysts (without offering any data) that the new law is “arguably” the biggest impediment to hiring, “particularly hiring of less skilled workers.” (The report also said repeal of the law would be “bullish” for the stock prices of managed-care companies, and said Washington policymakers, including Republicans, are “not pursuing a pro-growth immigration policy.”)

Gingrich and Jobs: Gingrich took personal credit for being a job creator, saying “in the Reagan administration, September 1983, we created 1,100,000 new jobs.” It’s true that total nonfarm employment jumped by that much back then — by 1,114,000 actually, after falling 308,000 the month before. But Gingrich was not part of the Reagan administration. At the time, he was a third-term House member who had risen to be whip for the Republicans, who were still in the minority in that chamber. He was an outspoken advocate for lower taxes, but not the powerful figure he would later become.

Cain’s Cancer: Cain told a whopper when he said he “would be dead under Obamacare” because the cancer that was detected in 2006 was found early and “I was able to get the necessary CAT scan tests, go to the necessary doctors, get a second opinion, get chemotherapy.” But, “If we had been under Obamacare and a bureaucrat was trying to tell me when I could get that CAT scan that would have delayed my treatment.” But the truth is that nothing in the new law would require any patient to clear CAT scans or medical treatment with “a bureaucrat.” Cain is simply reviving the old “death panel” claim, which topped our list of the “Whoppers of 2009.”

— by Brooks Jackson, Eugene Kiely, Robert Farley, D’Angelo Gore and Wendy Zhao


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