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FactChecking the MSNBC Democratic Forum

The Democratic presidential candidates were interviewed by MSNBC’s Rachel Maddow in a Nov. 6 forum. And they stretched the facts on a few topics:

  • Former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton claimed a recent study showed “white middle-aged Americans without a high school education … are dying earlier than their parents and their grandparents.” One of the authors of that study told us it “doesn’t establish any of what she says.”
  • Former Maryland Gov. Martin O’Malley said that Sen. Bernie Sanders “was trying to find someone to primary” President Obama during his reelection campaign. Sanders voiced support for a contested primary to push Obama to the left, but there’s no evidence Sanders actively sought a challenger.
  • Asked if he hurt the “progressive” cause in Maryland by moving too fast on gun control, marriage equality, the death penalty and a higher minimum wage, O’Malley said “the most politically unpopular decisions that I made, I made in my first term.” But O’Malley signed those laws in his second term.
  • Sanders was right to say that allowing unloaded guns and ammunition in checked baggage on Amtrak trains — which he voted for in 2009 — “is the same thing” as what is allowed on airplanes.

Maddow interviewed the candidates one by one at the Friday night forum, held at Winthrop University in Rock Hill, South Carolina.

Clinton Wrong on Mortality Study

Clinton claimed a recent study showed “white middle-aged Americans without a high school education … are dying earlier than their parents and their grandparents.” The study found an increased mortality rate among that age group since 1999, but it made no comparisons with past generations.

Clinton made her remarks when she was asked by forum moderator Maddow what she would say to African American voters who may be “wondering if their chance for meaningful change has passed” once President Obama leaves office. Clinton said “communities of color” are not the only group being “left behind,” and she referenced a recent study regarding middle-aged white Americans.

Clinton: But this recent study which shows that white middle-aged Americans without a high school education, you find them across the country, but there are a disproportionate number of them across the South, are dying earlier than their parents and their grandparents.

The Clinton campaign said she was referring to a study written by two Princeton economists, Angus Deaton and Anne Case, and published online Nov. 2 by the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. But the authors say Clinton got it wrong.

The study found that the mortality rate for non-Hispanic whites 45 to 54 years old has increased by 34 deaths per 100,000 people from 1999 to 2013, reversing a “remarkable long-term decline in mortality rates” in the U.S. That increase was “driven primarily by increasing death rates for those with a high school degree or less,” the report said. The rate for this group during that time increased by 134 deaths per 100,000 between 1999 and 2013. (See Table 1.)

The study “did not say ANYTHING about people without a high school education,” Deaton told us in an email. The largest increase in mortality was among the middle-aged white Americans with a high school degree or less, so it included those with a high school diploma.

More important, the study did not make any comparisons with previous generations, so it’s wrong to say the study shows middle-aged Americans of any educational attainment level are “dying earlier than their parents and grandparents,” as Clinton said.

“Our study doesn’t establish any of what she says, parents or grandparents, and it is not a question we ask,” Deaton told us in an email. “Given the general decline in mortality [prior to 1999], I’d be surprised if the statement [by Clinton] were true in any reasonable interpretation, especially for the grandparents, and I don’t think the data exist to find out precisely.”

O’Malley and Sanders Spar over Support for Obama

Making support for President Obama a campaign issue, O’Malley said that during Obama’s reelection campaign, “I was glad to step up and work very hard for him, while Sen. Sanders was trying to find someone to primary him.”

Sanders did voice some support for a contested primary for Obama, as a means to push the president further to the left, but there is no evidence he actively sought out an opposition candidate. And Sanders ultimately publicly supported Obama’s reelection campaign.

O’Malley raised the point when asked to contrast himself with Sanders.

BuzzFeed reported that Sanders responded in a press conference the next day, saying, “I think contested elections are not a bad thing, but the idea that I worked against President Obama is untrue. In fact, I vigorously supported him in 2008, he came to my state in 2006. I campaigned for him in 2008, I campaigned for him very hard in 2012, and I never made any effort to enlist a candidate against him.”

On ABC’s “This Week,” on Nov. 8, Sanders again responded to O’Malley’s claim, saying, “The idea that I worked against Barack Obama is categorically false.” To the contrary, he said, “I worked very hard to see Barack Obama elected.”

O’Malley fired back in an interview with BuzzFeed, accusing Sanders of “rewriting history.”

To get the proper context, let’s briefly back up and run through some of the history between Sanders and Obama. In 2008, Sanders declined to endorse either Obama or Hillary Clinton in the Democratic primary, but he endorsed and supported Obama once Obama had secured the Democratic nomination. (We should note that O’Malley, then the governor of Maryland, endorsed Hillary Clinton during the Democratic primary, and acted as chair of her Maryland campaign. He threw his support behind Obama once Obama got the Democratic nod.)  

During Obama’s first term, Sanders had several public disagreements with Obama, arguing primarily that the president was too willing to cut bad deals with Republicans. Notably, in 2010, he railed for more than eight hours on the Senate floor against a deal brokered between Obama and Republicans that extended the Bush tax cuts. He also criticized Obama for backing off a promise to lift the payroll tax cap on earnings above $250,000 in order to ensure the long-term health of Social Security.

And in a July 22, 2011, appearance on the Thom Hartmann radio program, Sanders did, in fact, voice support for a primary challenge to Obama, but in context, Sanders appeared to be making a pitch not to unseat the president, but to push the president further to the left.

Sanders’ comment came in response to a caller who asked how the country could get “back on track” with a government that “quit[s] running the country like a for-profit machine.” Sanders responded that “it would do this country a good deal of service if people started thinking about candidates out there to begin contrasting what is a progressive agenda as opposed to what Obama is doing.”

Sanders, July 22, 2011: Ryan, believe me, I wish I had the answer to your question. Let me just suggest this. I think that there are millions of Americans who are deeply disappointed in the president, who believe that with regard to Social Security and a number of other issues, he said one thing as a candidate and is doing something very much else as a president, who cannot believe how weak he has been — for whatever reason — in negotiating with Republicans, and there’s deep disappointment. So my suggestion is, I think, you know one of the reasons the president has been able to move so far to the right is that there is no primary opposition to him. And I think it would do this country a good deal of service if people started thinking about candidates out there to begin contrasting what is a progressive agenda as opposed to what Obama is doing.

The next caller then followed up, asking, “Who out there would you suggest? Who are you talking to? Are you encouraging anyone?”

Sanders, July 22, 2011: At this point, I have not, but I am now giving thought to doing it. You know the names out there as well as I do. And I think the American people have got to be engaged, it’s not just me or anybody else here in Washington. There are a lot of smart, honest progressive people who I think can be good presidents. And I think one of the reasons President Obama has moved as far to the right as he has, is he thinks he can go all the way and no one will stand up to him. So, Tim, I don’t want to tell you more than that, but this is an issue we are beginning to talk about a little bit.

The following month, Sanders was asked in a C-SPAN interview if he had someone in mind for a primary challenge to Obama, and what he thought that might accomplish (starting at the 23:20 mark):

Sanders, Aug. 12, 2011: I don’t know of anybody in mind, but I’m sure that there are serious and smart people out there who can do it. Here’s the point: If you’re asking me, do I think at the end of the day that Barack Obama is going to be the Democratic candidate for president in 2012? I do. But do I believe that it is a good idea for our democracy, and for the Democratic Party — and I speak, by the way, as an independent — that people start asking the president some hard questions about why he said one thing during his previous campaign and is doing another thing today on Social Security, on Medicare? I think it is important that that discussion take place. …

By early 2012, Sanders was publicly supporting Obama’s reelection. As an introductory speaker before Obama took the podium at a campaign event at the University of Vermont, Sanders described 2012 as “a campaign of huge consequences” and pledged to do “everything we can to reelect Barack Obama as president of the United States.”

Sanders at Obama rally, March 30, 2012: Six years ago when I was a candidate for the U.S. Senate, Barack Obama came to Vermont to campaign for me, came to UVM, and I will forever be grateful of his support. And today, I am extremely proud to be here today to say that we are all together going to do everything we can to reelect Barack Obama as president of the United States.

In a May 16, 2012, interview on CNN, host Wolf Blitzer asked where Sanders was on Obama, given that “last time we spoke, your endorsement of the president was lukewarm.”

Sanders responded that Republican Mitt Romney was “George Bush reincarnated” and said, “So if people liked the Bush economic policy, you’re going to like Romney. I thought the Bush economic policy was a disaster. … So I think Obama is by far the preferable candidate. Is Obama doing everything I want, absolutely not, and among other things he has not been as strong as he should standing up to Wall Street.”

BuzzFeed spoke to several unnamed “senior officials” on Obama’s 2012 campaign, and none of them recalled Sanders campaigning particularly strenuously for Obama.

Readers can decide for themselves the appropriate level and consistency of support they believe Sanders showed, or should have provided, to Obama’s 2012 reelection campaign — and whether that amounts to campaigning “very hard” for him, as Sanders put it. In his radio and C-SPAN interviews, Sanders did voice support for a primary challenge to Obama. But saying that Democrats could benefit from having a contested primary isn’t the same thing as actively recruiting someone to oppose Obama. Sanders may have said that he was “giving thought to doing it,” but there isn’t any evidence that he actually did.

O’Malley’s Progressive Record

Former Maryland Gov. Martin O’Malley said that “the most politically unpopular decisions that I made, I made in my first term” after MSNBC’s Maddow asked him about the impact of such “progressive” moves as signing marriage equality, a higher minimum wage, gun restrictions and an end to the death penalty. In fact, all of the items Maddow listed happened in O’Malley’s second term.

Here’s the exchange:

Maddow: I mean, when you were Governor you signed marriage equality, you signed a higher minimum wage, you signed new restrictions on guns, you signed an end to the death penalty. But then when you left, Maryland went a lot redder than it had been. Did your progressive agenda go too fast too far? Did you not bring your state along with you when you made all those aggressive changes?

O’Malley: Most of the tough decisions and the most politically unpopular decisions that I made, I made in my first term. And then I ran for re-election against the incumbent Republican governor that I beat by seven points. And in that second race in 2010, which wasn’t a great year for Democrats, I beat my Republican opponent, well financed as he was, by twice the margin, by 14 points.

O’Malley may have been referring to other “politically unpopular decisions” from his first term, not the second-term decisions Maddow listed. We reached out to his campaign to ask, but we haven’t yet received a response. We will update this item if we do.

On his campaign website, he touts that in 2007, his first year as governor, he signed legislation to give voting rights to some convicted felons who had served their sentences. A Baltimore Sun article at the time noted: “Maryland previously had one of the most severe policies regarding felons’ voting rights — it was one of 11 states that permanently revoked voting rights for some felons.” He also signed the Working Families and Small Business Health Coverage Act, which expanded Medicaid and created an insurance exchange for small businesses.

His website says that he signed greenhouse gas legislation, which he did in 2009, to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 25 percent from 2006 levels by 2020.

But his website also lists all of the items Maddow ticked off, and they occurred after he was sworn in for a second term in January 2011. He signed marriage equality legislation in 2012, repealed the death penalty in 2013 and increased the state minimum wage to $10.10 in 2014. O’Malley’s website also says that he “[p]assed the Firearm Safety Act Of 2013, one of the toughest firearms laws in the nation.”

He’s correct to say that when he was reelected, he beat his Republican opponent, former Maryland Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr., by 14 points, 56 percent to 42 percent. And he only beat Ehrlich by 6.5 percentage points in 2006, their first match-up. But all of the items Maddow listed in his “progressive agenda” happened after he was reelected and would have had no bearing on the outcome.

Sanders on Guns and Amtrak

Sanders, challenged on his Senate vote to allow passengers to transport unloaded firearms and ammunition in checked baggage on Amtrak trains, said that what he voted for back in 2009 “is the same thing” as what is allowed on airplanes. He’s right. The policies for transporting firearms on airplanes and Amtrak trains are very similar.

Maddow: We got one specific very interesting viewer question on this subject for you. It came in on Facebook from a woman named Maggie Thomasson. And she says this: “My question for Bernie Sanders is why did he vote against banning guns on Amtrak? We cannot carry guns on airplanes. What was his reasoning for allowing it on trains?”

Sanders: Well, actually, to the best of my memory, you can put unloaded guns into the baggage department of a plane. In other words, it’s not people carrying a gun on the train. It is putting them in baggage. You’ve got hunters who are going from Vermont to the Midwest, and they put their weapons unloaded in the cargo part. That’s the reason for it.

Maddow: But you can transport the ammunition on the train with you. You can access your baggage from anywhere on the train. I mean, this is — this is an expansion of a place where guns used to not be, and you said they should be there.

Sanders: No, what I’m saying is what I voted on for trains is the same as exists in airplanes. It is the same thing.

On Sept. 16, 2009, Sanders voted in favor of an amendment to a transportation appropriations bill that restored the right of Amtrak passengers to transport guns in checked baggage. Doing so had been prohibited since the terrorist attacks on Sept. 11, 2001.

The amendment allowed passengers traveling to and from Amtrak stations with checked baggage service to place an unloaded firearm in a checked bag if the passenger provided advance notice that he or she would be traveling with a firearm and if that firearm was stored in a locked, hard-sided container to which only the passenger had the key or combination. The amendment also said passengers would be allowed to place ammunition for a small firearm inside the checked bag if the ammunition was stored securely in a box made of fiber, wood or metal, or other packaging used to transport small amounts of ammunition.

That same language was included in the final version of H.R. 3288 that President Barack Obama signed into law on Dec. 16, 2009. And that is the current policy for transporting guns and ammunition on Amtrak trains, which is very similar to the Transportation Security Administration’s policy allowing passengers to carry firearms and ammunition in checked bags on airplanes.

According to the TSA, passengers on airplanes “may transport unloaded firearms in a locked hard-sided container as checked baggage only.” As for ammunition, TSA says that “firearm magazines and ammunition clips, whether loaded or empty, must be securely boxed or included within a hard-sided case containing an unloaded firearm.”

Neither Amtrak nor TSA allows travelers to have firearms or ammunition physically on them while traveling or in their carry-on baggage. And Amtrak says that only its employees have access to the area of the train where checked bags are stored (see page 4 of a 2010 document explaining the Amtrak Checked Firearms Program).

So Maddow was off the mark when she told Sanders that “you can transport the ammunition on the train with you,” and “you can access your baggage from anywhere on the train.”

Checked baggage “is off limits until the passenger reaches their final destination,” an Amtrak spokesman told us in an email. “The Conductor is responsible for loading, unloading and maintaining the baggage car, including ensuring all doors are closed, locked and secure.”

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