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A Project of The Annenberg Public Policy Center

South Carolina Debate

We found several exaggerations and misstatements in the latest Republican presidential candidates’ debate.

  • Romney issued a hollow threat to take China’s currency manipulation to a world body that doesn’t actually deal with overvalued money, and he claimed federal spending consumes more of the nation’s economic output than it really does.
  • Gingrich overstated U.S. aid to Egypt by a factor of two, and he claimed Obama repudiated former president Mubarak “overnight,” when in fact the president took seven days before he publicly urged Mubarak to begin an “orderly transition” of power.
  • And Bachmann claimed that “we have no jail” for terrorists captured on “the battlefield,” overlooking the 1,700 men being held without trial at Bagram Air Base in Afghanistan.

The debate took place Nov. 12 at Wofford College in Spartanburg, S.C., among eight candidates: Rep. Michele Bachmann of Minnesota, businessman Herman Cain, former House Speaker Newt Gingrich, former Utah Gov. Jon Huntsman, Rep. Ron Paul of Texas, Texas Gov. Rick Perry, former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney and former Sen. Rick Santorum of Pennsylvania. It was sponsored by CBS News, the National Journal and the South Carolina Republican Party. The first hour of the 90-minute event was carried live on CBS, which said it planned to broadcast the final 30 minutes the following day on its Sunday show “Face the Nation.” Questions were focused on foreign policy.

Romney’s Hollow Threat on WTO and China

Romney threatened to haul China before the World Trade Organization to address currency manipulation. But as Huntsman suggested, the WTO isn’t a good forum for that.

Romney: [T]hey’re a currency manipulator. And on that basis, we also go before the WT — WTO — and bring an action against them as a currency manipulator. … We can’t just sit back and let China run all over us.

Huntsman: … First of all, I don’t think, Mitt, you can take China to the WTO on currency-related issues.

Huntsman — a former U.S. ambassador to China — is correct. WTO rules don’t cover currency manipulation, according to a 2011 report by the Congressional Research Service:

CRS, Jan. 28, 2011: The WTO has rules against subsidies, but these are very narrow and specific and do not seem to encompass currency manipulation.

To be sure, the CRS report said it is “debatable” whether WTO rules against unfair trade subsidies can be interpreted to cover a deliberately undervalued currency. But it added: “[T]o date [the WTO] has done nothing to suggest that trade issues linked to currency manipulation are within its zone of responsibility.” The CRS said that a president might seek to amend WTO rules so that they clearly cover currency manipulation, but that is “not easy.”

Overall, we judge that there’s less force behind Romney’s WTO threat than he would have viewers believe.

Gingrich Wrong on Aid to Egypt

Gingrich was wrong when he said Egypt receives $3 billion a year in foreign aid from the U.S. It actually receives about half that.

Gingrich: You’re giving some countries $7 billion a year. So you start off — or — or in the case of Egypt $3 billion a year.

The Congressional Research Service said in a June 15, 2010, report that Egypt is the second-largest recipient of U.S. foreign aid, and had been receiving an average of about $2 billion a year since 1979. However, U.S. aid to Egypt has been “trending downward,” CRS said. It now receives a total of about $1.55 billion — roughly $1.3 billion a year in military assistance and $250 million in economic aid.

The level of military aid has remained consistent, the CRS report said.

CRS, June 15: In July 2007, as a part of a larger arms package to the region, the United States announced that it would provide Egypt with $13 billion in military aid over a ten-year period. Since Egypt has already been receiving approximately $1.3 billion a year in military assistance, the announcement represented no major change in U.S. assistance policy toward Egypt.

Similarly, the State Department also says on its website that “U.S. military aid to Egypt totals over $1.3 billion annually.”

However, the CRS says in its report (and in a separate report issued in February 2011) that economic assistance to Egypt has been “significantly reduced” in recent years — in part due to a 10-year agreement known as the Glide Path Agreement that was reached in 1998 that maintained military aid but reduced economic aid.

CRS, Feb. 4, 2011: Thus the United States reduced ESF aid to Egypt from $815 million in FY1998 to $411 million in FY2008. For FY2011, the Administration is requesting $250 million in ESF (Economic Support Fund) Egypt, the same amount it has received since FY2009.

For fiscal year 2012, the Obama administration requested $1.55 billion in military and economic assistance for Egypt, the CRS said in a September report titled “Egypt in Transition.”

Bachmann on Battlefield Detentions

Bachmann claimed that “when we interdict a terrorist on the battlefield, we have no jail for them. We have nowhere to take them.” Not true. There are currently more than 1,700 men being held without trial at the Bagram Air Base in Afghanistan.

The claim arose as Bachmann stated that unlike Obama, she’d be willing to use waterboarding.

Bachmann: Under Barack Obama, he is allowing the ACLU to run the CIA. You need to understand that today, when we interdict a terrorist on the battlefield, we have no jail for them. We have nowhere to take them. We have no CIA interrogation anymore. It is as though we have decided we want to lose in the war on terror under President Obama.

In May 2010, a U.S. appeals court ruled that terrorism suspects could be held indefinitely at the Bagram Air Base in Afghanistan.

With a 3-0 ruling, the judges “dismissed claims from three prisoners who were brought to Bagram from Pakistan and Thailand and have been held for as long as seven years,” according to a Tribune Co. report in May 2010.

Tribune Co.: The decision could bring an ironic end to years of legal wrangling over prisoners held by the U.S. military. The ruling, unless overturned by the Supreme Court, appears to the give the Obama administration what the Bush administration had long sought: a place where foreign prisoners can be held by the military out of reach of lawyers and courts.

For months, the Obama administration has debated plans to use Bagram as an alternative to Guantanamo for a small number of prisoners caught outside Afghanistan. Currently, only a dozen or fewer of the Bagram prisoners are foreign fighters, Defense officials have said. But that number soon could grow.

According to a June 23 story in the New York Times, there are about 1,700 men currently being held without trial at the Bagram Air Base in Afghanistan.

In a fact-check of the South Carolina debate, the National Journal — one of the debate sponsors — wrote that Bachmann’s claim that U.S. intelligence operatives have no place to detain captured terrorists is simply false.

National Journal: The Bush administration operated a network of secret prisons in Afghanistan and eastern Europe, but it began closing down the European facilities before handing power to President Obama. Under Obama’s watch, the U.S. has maintained – and expanded – the size of its secretive prisons in Afghanistan; opened up new detention facilities on the island of Diego Garcia; and opened up new facilities in the African nation of Somalia. In addition, the Guantanamo Bay detention facility remains open, and terror suspects held there continue to be interrogated.

But Bachmann’s claim, as it relates to the issue of terror suspects captured outside Iraq or Afghanistan, is supported by an April story in the Los Angeles Times that said the CIA has “slashed its terrorism interrogation role.”

Los Angeles Times: At the same time, [the CIA] has stopped trying to detain or interrogate suspects caught abroad, except those captured in Iraq and Afghanistan.

“The CIA is out of the detention and interrogation business,” said a U.S. official who is familiar with intelligence operations but was not authorized to speak publicly.

Several factors are behind the change.

Widespread criticism of Bush administration interrogation and detention policies as brutal and degrading led Obama to stop sending suspected terrorists to the U.S. naval base at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba. Public exposure also forced the CIA to close a network of secret prisons. That left U.S. officials with no obvious place to hold new captives.

In February, the Los Angeles Times also reported: “There has been wide disagreement within the government on where to send a newly captured Al Qaeda member who the U.S. wants to question but lacks the evidence to prosecute … Several officials said a final policy was close to being completed.”

Obama and Mubarak

Gingrich exaggerated in claiming that President Obama “dumped” Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak “overnight.” It took seven days of protests for the president to publicly support the start of an “orderly transition” in Egypt.

The Egyptian uprising started on Jan. 25 — the “day of revolt” — and the next day Secretary of State Hillary Clinton called for peaceful protests, government restraint and political reforms. White House spokesman Robert Gibbs said that day that the administration would “continue to monitor the situation” in Egypt, where Mubarak — a longtime U.S. ally — had been in power for nearly 30 years.

On Jan. 28, Obama gave an address in which he did not call for Mubarak to step down — even as he sided with the Egyptians’ right to protest and criticized Mubarak’s government for using force to try to crush the uprising. Obama said, “Ultimately the future of Egypt will be determined by the Egyptian people.”

After a week of continuing protests, Obama issued a statement Feb. 1 calling for “an orderly transition” in Egypt that “must begin now.” The president issued his statement after Mubarak said he would not seek reelection but he would remain in office for eight more months. As the New York Times noted, Obama “stopped short of demanding that President Hosni Mubarak leave office immediately.”

On Feb. 4, Obama called on Mubarak to make the “right decision,” without saying explicitly that the Egyptian president should resign.

Mubarak left office on Feb. 11.

Romney Exaggerates on Spending

Romney exaggerated the level of federal spending, claiming that it consumes a bit more of the economy than it really does.

Romney: Right now we’re spending about 25 percent of the economy at the federal level. And that has to be brought down to a cap of 20 percent.

Actually, according to the most recent figures from the nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office, federal spending (outlays) amounted to 23.8 percent of the nation’s gross domestic product in fiscal 2010, and it was running at the same level for fiscal year 2011 (which ended Sept. 30).

It’s true that spending hit 25 percent of GDP in fiscal year 2009, which was the highest since World War II (as we pointed out in our “Fiscal FactCheck” article last July.) But CBO now projects that with continued economic improvement, spending will be down to 23 percent of GDP in fiscal 2012, which began Oct. 1.

Bachmann’s Welfare Time Warp

Bachmann made long-outdated comparisons to argue for lower spending on social welfare programs. She said she would cut Lyndon Johnson’s “Great Society” programs.

Bachmann: If you look at China, they don’t have food stamps. … They don’t have AFDC. They don’t have the modern welfare state.

“AFDC” is a reference to the old Aid to Families With Dependent Children program, but it no longer exists. AFDC and several other federal aid programs were replaced by the 1996 legislation commonly known as “welfare reform.” Taking their place is the current Temporary Assistance to Needy Families program of block grants to states.

And technically, “food stamps” don’t exist anymore either. Although that term is still in common use, the program is now formally known as Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) and no longer uses the paper coupons. Legislation enacted in 2008 only allows electronic debit cards to be used.

And in any case, while China may not have programs exactly comparable to food stamps, SNAP, AFDC or TANF, it does have programs for both social insurance and medical insurance.

Been There, Done That

The candidates also repeated claims we’ve heard at least once before:

  • Bachmann said that it was “quite likely” under President Obama that Medicare and the military’s Tricare program “will collapse,” and “everyone will be put into Obamacare.” That’s a softer version of the claim she made at the Oct. 11 New Hampshire debate, where she said unequivocally that Obama “plans for Medicare to collapse.” There’s no evidence for this bewildering claim. Medicare is a government-run program. If seniors were forced off of it, would they end up with subsidized private insurance, something Republicans have often espoused?
  • Romney said it in the last debate, and tonight he said it again: “We should not pay government workers” more than those in the private sector. The average government worker does make more in salary and benefits than the average worker in the private sector. But the comparison is misleading. The average federal worker has more education and more experience, too. For details, see our Dec. 1 item, “Are Federal Workers Overpaid?”
  • Gingrich once again claimed credit for balanced budgets that happened after he left Congress, saying: “I helped balance the budget for four consecutive years.” But as we pointed out back in March when he made this often-repeated boast, he was in Congress for only two of those four years.

— Brooks Jackson, Eugene Kiely, Lori Robertson and Robert Farley