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A Project of The Annenberg Public Policy Center

Our Clinton Nightmare

CHARLOTTE, N.C. — Former President Bill Clinton’s stem-winding nomination speech was a fact-checker’s nightmare: lots of effort required to run down his many statistics and factual claims, producing little for us to write about.

Republicans will find plenty of Clinton’s scorching opinions objectionable. But with few exceptions, we found his stats checked out.

Overselling ‘Obamacare’

The worst we could fault him for was a suggestion that President Obama’s Affordable Care Act was responsible for bringing down the rate of increase in health care spending, when the fact is that the law’s main provisions have yet to take effect.

Clinton said that “for the last two years, health care costs have been under 4 percent in both years for the first time in 50 years.” That’s true, as reported by the journal Health Affairs in January of this year. But Clinton went too far when he added: “So let me ask you something. Are we better off because President Obama fought for health care reform? You bet we are.”

Actually, the major provisions of the 2010 law — the individual mandate, federal subsidies to help Americans buy insurance, and big reductions in the growth of Medicare spending — haven’t yet taken effect. Experts mainly blame the lousy economy for the slowdown in health care spending. As a report by economists and statisticians at the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services reported last year, for example (as quoted in the Washington Post): “Job losses caused many people to lose employer-sponsored health insurance and, in some cases, to forgo health-care services they could not afford.”

And this year, the New York Times also reported:

New York Times, April 28, 2012: The growth rate mostly slowed as millions of Americans lost insurance coverage along with their jobs. Worried about job security, others may have feared taking time off work for doctor’s visits or surgical procedures, or skipped nonurgent care when money was tight.

The Times also quoted experts who said consumers’ and physicians’ behavior may be changing, and the “anticipation of the health care overhaul” could be a reason. Said the Times: “Many health care experts said they believed that the shift toward publicizing medical error rates and encouraging accountable care seemed to be paying dividends — and that providers were making changes in anticipation of the health care overhaul, which further emphasize accountable care.” But that would explain only part of the slowdown, if it’s truly a factor at all.

Other Exaggerations

Other exaggerations and missteps were minor by comparison.

Clinton claimed Medicare will “go broke in 2016″ if Romney is elected and repeals the federal health care law. Medicare will not “go broke,” but a part of it — the hospital insurance trust fund — would not be able to pay full benefits for hospital services. Physician and prescription drug benefits, financed separately out of general tax revenues and premiums, wouldn’t be affected.

As we explained in our Aug. 22 article, “A Campaign Full of Mediscare,” the Medicare hospital trust fund is on pace to be exhausted by 2024 — or by 2016 if the Affordable Care Act is repealed. But Medicare would still collect payroll taxes sufficient to pay most hospital bills that would come due. Medicare trustees estimate the fund could pay 87 percent of its costs. The funding gap would continue to grow, and by 2050 the fund could cover only 67 percent of its bills. That’s a serious situation to be sure, but it’s not as though Medicare itself would suddenly halt all payments.

Clinton also exaggerated when he said Obama’s 2009 stimulus bill “cut taxes for 95 percent of the American people.” That’s too high. The “Making Work Pay” tax credit cut taxes temporarily for about 95 percent of workers — those with “earned income.” But it didn’t benefit pensioners or the unemployed, for example. The nonpartisan Tax Policy Center estimated in 2010 that it benefited 76 percent of all families and single individuals.

Clinton was substantially correct when he said oil imports were at “a near 20-year low.” He referred to a recent prediction that U.S. dependence on imported oil would fall this year to 42 percent, which Bloomberg News reported would be “the lowest level in two decades.”

But Clinton’s point was that the president’s energy policies were “helping” to bring that about. Bloomberg, however, gave credit to “a boom in oil production from the shale formations of North Dakota and Texas,” made possible by a drilling technique known as hydraulic fracturing.

And plenty of other Clinton statistics checked out as accurate. For example, he said that since 1961, when John F. Kennedy took office, 42 million private-sector jobs had been added while Democrats held the White House, compared with 24 million while Republicans were in office. And that’s exactly what Bloomberg News reported in a May 8 story.

He also accused Republicans of blocking 1 million potential new jobs, but that checked out, too:

Clinton: Last year the Republicans blocked the president’s job plan, costing the economy more than a million new jobs.

Two independent economists — Mark Zandi of Moody’s Analytics and Joel Prakken of Macroeconomics Advisers — had estimated that Obama’s proposed American Jobs Act would add more than 1 million jobs. Zandi claimed it would add 1.9 million jobs; Prakken 1.3 million. Senate Republicans blocked the $447 billion measure, and Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnell denounced it as “a charade that’s meant to give Democrats a political edge” in 2012.

Oh yes — technically, Clinton’s speech was to nominate Obama. When he finished, convention delegates made it official: President Obama is the Democratic Party’s candidate for president in 2012.

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