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A Project of The Annenberg Public Policy Center

Factual Flubs in Florida

The four remaining candidates debated once again, this time in Tampa, Florida — where facts took a beating.

Mitt Romney falsely claimed the Navy is smaller now than at any time since the start of World War I. (It had fewer ships as recently as four years ago.) And Newt Gingrich again claimed credit for balancing federal budgets that were voted on after he left the House.

The event was sponsored in part by NBC News, which broadcast it. We noted these incorrect or misleading claims:

Romney Flunks Naval History

Romney claimed that “our Navy is now smaller than any time since 1917.” That’s not true — at least as measured by the number of active-duty ships. There are more Navy ships now than during the last four years of George W. Bush’s presidency.

According to the Defense Department’s Naval History and Heritage Command, there were 342 total active ships as of April 6, 1917, when the U.S. entered World War I. And there were 285 total active ships as of Sept. 30, 2011, the most recent month for which figures are available. So it’s true that the Navy has fewer ships now than it did then — but not fewer than at “any time” since then.

There were fewer active ships at the end of fiscal years 2005, 2006, 2007 and 2008, as follows:

282 as of Sept. 30, 2005
281 as of Sept. 30, 2006
278 as of Sept. 30, 2007
282 as of Sept. 30, 2008

Gingrich on Balanced Budgets

Gingrich wrongly claimed “that, when I was speaker, we had four consecutive balanced budgets.” Only two of the four occurred while Gingrich was speaker.

Gingrich: Well, first of all, the case I make is that, when I was speaker, we had four consecutive balanced budgets, the only time in your lifetime, Brian, that we’ve had four consecutive balanced budgets. Most people think that’s good.

This boast is something that we have refuted numerous times. He has claimed to have “helped” balance the federal budget for four consecutive years. This time, he went beyond that in claiming that all four occurred under his watch as speaker of the House.

The federal government had four consecutive balanced budgets from fiscal years 1998 to 2001. Gingrich announced in November 1998 that he would resign as speaker. He left the House in January 1999. He was speaker when Congress passed federal budgets in fiscal years 1998 and 1999, but not 2000 and 2001.

Romney: Gingrich Resigned ‘in Disgrace’

In a tense exchange early in the evening, Romney claimed Gingrich had resigned “in disgrace” after the House (including most Republicans) voted to reprimand him and penalize him $300,000 on January 17, 1997. In fact, as Gingrich later correctly noted, he didn’t announce his resignation until nearly two years later, on Nov. 5, 1998. His ouster was prompted by a poor showing in the 1998 elections, in which the GOP lost five House seats. It was the first time since 1934 that the party holding the White House had gained seats in a midterm election. That, more than any lingering effects of the ethics case, caused Gingrich to lose the support of his Republican colleagues in the House.

Romney Wrong on ‘Obamacare’ and Deficit

Romney continued his attacks on the federal health care law, saying that the country has $15 trillion in debt and President Obama “adds another trillion on top for Obamacare and for his stimulus plan that didn’t create private-sector jobs.”

But the nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office has estimated that the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act will reduce yearly deficits — by $119 billion over the 2012-2019 period — not add to them. Earlier this month at a debate in New Hampshire, Romney phrased this claim differently, saying that repealing the health care law would save “$95 billion a year.” That figure is the amount of new spending required by the law, but Romney didn’t factor in spending cuts and revenue provisions that, according to CBO, would more than cover the cost of the legislation.

This time, Romney took his claim a step further, wrongly saying that the law would increase the debt, not just spending. In fact, the CBO has said that the deficit would increase if the health care law was repealed, as Romney proposes.

As for the stimulus, the 2009 measure cost an estimated $825 billion. But Romney’s claim that it “didn’t create private-sector jobs” is wrong, according to nearly all economic estimates and the nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office. CBO states that at its peak, in the third quarter of 2010, there were between 0.7 million and 3.6 million more people working than would have been the case without the stimulus.

And some portion of those jobs were private-sector jobs. Since the stimulus was signed in February 2009, overall employment by federal, state and local government has gone down — by more than 600,000 jobs — not up.

Romney Wrong on NASA

Romney went too far when he claimed that Obama has “no plans” for NASA. Obama in 2010 set in motion a plan to build a heavy-lift launch vehicle to go beyond the Earth’s orbit. The president’s plan calls on NASA to land astronauts on an asteroid by 2025, orbit Mars by the mid-2030s and, ultimately, land on Mars.

Romney: His plans for NASA, he has no plans for NASA. The space coast is — is struggling. This president has failed the people of Florida.

Some background: President Bush announced in January 2004 that he would retire the Shuttle program and return to the moon by 2020. The Shuttle program ended last year, leading to job losses along the so-called “space coast.” The question facing Obama early in his administration was whether he would continue Bush’s plan for NASA or come up with his own. Obama proposed a new course.

In February 2010, Obama’s proposed budget for NASA called for killing Bush’s plan to return to the moon. In an April 15, 2010, speech in Florida, Obama unveiled his proposal for a deep-space exploration plan that included the goals of landing on an asteroid by 2025 and orbiting Mars by the middle of the 2030s — with the ultimate goal of landing on Mars. The proposal caused a rift among some of NASA’s most famous astronauts, with Neil Armstrong opposing it and Buzz Aldrin supporting it, as the Los Angeles Times reported at the time.

Nevertheless, Obama’s plans are moving forward. NASA announced a design for the heavy-lift launch vehicle that would make it possible to go beyond the Earth’s orbit. In making the announcement on the design plans, NASA administrator Charles Bolden said: “President Obama challenged us to be bold and dream big, and that’s exactly what we are doing at NASA. While I was proud to fly on the space shuttle, tomorrow’s explorers will now dream of one day walking on Mars.”

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

Note: FactCheckED.org has been revamped and now features “debate watch” videos that show clips of the candidates making false, misleading or distorted claims during debates. The videos are produced by our sister site, FlackCheck.org, based on reporting by us and other fact-checking operations.