A Project of The Annenberg Public Policy Center

FactChecking the Sixth Democratic Debate

Clinton, Sanders face off on foreign policy, health care, wages and Social Security in round two.


Summary

One week after their last meeting, the Democratic presidential candidates debated in Milwaukee. We found:

  • Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders said his bill on Social Security would extend the life of the trust funds by 58 years. It’s 40 years, according to the Social Security Administration’s chief actuary.
  • Former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said the Affordable Care Act “has helped more African Americans than any other group to get insurance.” But the Obama administration’s own figures show a larger drop in the uninsured among Latinos.
  • Clinton repeated a claim that “Americans haven’t had a raise in 15 years.” Real weekly earnings went up 9.2 percent in that time frame.
  • Both candidates glossed over some context during a disagreement about whether Sanders had once advocated regime change in Libya and Iraq.
  • Sanders inflated unemployment figures, including the “real” unemployment rate for African American youth, which he says is more than 50 percent. The official rate for blacks age 16 to 19 is half that.
  • The candidates disagreed over whether Sanders had been critical of Obama’s leadership, specifically in a blurb for a new book. Both made some accurate statements, but we provide context.

Analysis

The sixth Democratic debate, and the second between only Clinton and Sanders, was hosted by PBS and held at the University of Wisconsin.

Extending the Life of Social Security

Sanders said his legislation to lift the cap on payroll taxes and expand benefits would extend the life of the Social Security trust funds by 58 years. Not quite. The Social Security Administration’s chief actuary said this month that Sanders’ bill would extend the trust funds by 40 years, from 2034 to 2074.

Sanders is the sponsor of the Social Security Expansion Act. To pay for an expansion in benefits, the bill would lift the contribution limit on the Social Security payroll tax, which now applies to earnings up to $118,500.

The Vermont senator challenged Clinton to support his legislation.

Sanders: And here’s an area where Secretary Clinton and I believe we have a difference. I have long supported the proposition that we should lift the cap on taxable income coming into the Social Security Trust Fund, starting at $250,000. And when we — and when we do that, we don’t do what the Republicans want, which is to cut Social Security. We do what the American people want, to expand Social Security by $1,300 a year for people under $16,000, and we extend the life of Social Security for 58 years.

Stephen Goss, chief actuary for the Social Security Administration, twice has looked at the financial impact of Sanders’ bill on the combined Old-Age, Survivors, and Disability Insurance trust funds.

In a March 26, 2015, letter to Sanders, Goss projected that under Sanders’ bill, “the year of reserve depletion for the combined OASDI Trust Funds would be extended by 32 years, from 2033 under current law to 2065.”

A year later, Goss increased the projected lifespan of the trust funds by another eight years to 40 years.

“Assuming enactment of the proposal, we estimate the funding for the combined OASI and DI Trust Funds would be sufficient to extend the projected year of reserve depletion from 2034 to 2074,” Goss wrote in a Feb. 4 letter to Sanders.

Under current law, full scheduled benefits would continue through 2033 and then drop to 79 percent in 2034, 74 percent in 2074 and 73 percent in 2089, Goss wrote. But under Sanders’ bill, full benefits would be paid through 2073, with benefits being reduced to 88 percent in 2074 and 87 percent beginning in 2089.

A Sanders spokesman told us the senator was referring to “58 years from now,” meaning from 2016 to 2074. But Sanders said “we extend the life of Social Security for 58 years,” taking credit for 18 years when the Social Security trust funds will pay out full benefits whether his bill passes or not.

African Americans and the ACA

Clinton said that “the Affordable Care Act has helped more African Americans than any other group to get insurance, to be taken care of.” But the Obama administration’s own figures show a larger drop in the uninsured among Latinos.

The Department of Health and Human Services released an analysis in late September, saying 17.6 million had gained health insurance coverage under the ACA. The administration said that figure included three groups: young adults who were able to stay on their parents’ policies until age 26, those who signed up for the Medicaid expansion and those who gained coverage through the state and federal insurance marketplaces.

The rate of uninsured African American adults dropped by 10.3 percentage points, a greater decline than among whites but not as much as the rate drop for Latinos. Here are the HHS figures for the decline in the uninsured between October 2013 and Sept. 12, 2015:

  • 4 million Latino adults gained coverage, with the uninsured rate dropping 11.5 percentage points to 30.3 percent
  • 2.6 million African American adults gained coverage, with the uninsured rate dropping 10.3 percentage points to 12.1 percent
  • 7.4 million white adults gained coverage, with the uninsured rate dropping 6 percentage points to 8.3 percent

An HHS fact sheet, also released in September 2015, said generally that “the Affordable Care Act is working to increase access to affordable, quality health care. This is especially true of the African-American Community.” But in terms of the uninsured, the coverage gains have been greater for Latinos.

A December 2014 Urban Institute report projected the ACA could “substantially narrow differences in uninsurance rates between whites and all racial/ethnic minorities, except blacks,” because blacks disproportionately live in states that did not expand Medicaid.

Clinton Still Wrong on Wages

Clinton repeated a bogus claim that “Americans haven’t had a raise in 15 years.”

Clinton: I know a lot of Americans are angry about the economy. And for good cause. Americans haven’t had a raise in 15 years.

Back in November, she said essentially the same thing at the second Democratic debate. Her claim fell short of being accurate at the time, and it’s even further short of the mark today.

The most recent figures from the Bureau of Labor Statistics show real weekly earnings in December 2015 were 9.2 percent higher than they were 15 years earlier. That includes a 2.3 percent jump last year. (“Real” earnings are inflation-adjusted.)

It may well be so that many voters are “angry about the economy.” But the fact is, wages are rising faster than inflation.

Clinton went on to say that “[t]here aren’t enough good-paying jobs, especially for young people.”

How many job openings are “enough” is a matter of opinion, as is what pay level is high enough to be considered “good.”

But the fact is, the number of job openings was more than 5.6 million last December, according to BLS data. That’s nearly the highest in the 15 years the BLS has tracked job openings. It is just shy of the record of nearly 5.7 million set in July 2015.

As for “young people,” it’s true that, in January, the 10.3 percent jobless rate for those 16 to 24 years old was more than double the 4.9 percent rate for all adults. But the youth rate is always higher than the rate for older, more experienced adults. And the rate for 16- to 24-year-olds has now dropped back down to where it was in January 2007, before the Great Recession sent it soaring to nearly 20 percent.

Sanders on Regime Change

In heated foreign policy exchanges, Sanders and Clinton disagreed about whether Sanders had once advocated regime change in Libya and Iraq. Both sides glossed over some of the context.

The disagreement on Libya was part of an exchange initiated by Sanders, who criticized Clinton for being too eager to advocate regime change in countries, which he said has often led to “unintended consequences.”

“And in Libya, for example, the United States, Secretary Clinton, as secretary of state, working with some other countries, did get rid of a terrible dictator named [Moammar] Gadhafi,” Sanders said. “But what happened is a political vacuum developed. ISIS came in, and now occupies significant territory in Libya, and is now prepared, unless we stop them, to have a terrorist foothold.”

Clinton responded that Sanders, himself, “voted in favor of regime change with Libya, voted in favor of the Security Council being an active participant in setting the parameters for what we would do, which of course we followed through on.”

Sanders said that the resolution “was a virtually unanimous consent. Everybody voted for it wanting to see Libya move toward democracy, of course we all wanted to do that. That is very different than talking about specific action for regime change, which I did not support.”

Clinton then reiterated that Sanders “did support a U.N. Security Council approach, which we did follow up on.”

As we said, both sides are glossing over some important context.

It is true that on March 1, 2011, Sanders not only voted in favor of Senate Resolution 85, he also cosponsored it. The resolution, which was nonbinding and passed by unanimous consent, called on Gadhafi “to desist from further violence, recognize the Libyan people’s demand for democratic change, resign his position and permit a peaceful transition to democracy. …” So Sanders is correct that the resolution did not authorize or advocate for military action, though it did call for Gadhafi to resign his position.

In an interview with Fox News in March 2011, Sanders said, “Look, everybody understands Qaddafi is a thug and murderer. We want to see him go, but i think in the midst of two wars, I’m not quite sure we need a third war, and I hope the president tells us that our troops will be leaving there, that our military action in Libya will be ending very, very shortly.”

However, as Clinton said, the resolution Sanders cosponsored also urged the United Nations Security Council “to take such further action as may be necessary to protect civilians in Libya from attack, including the possible imposition of a no-fly zone over Libyan territory.” Indeed, a couple weeks later, the Security Council did approve a resolution calling for a no-fly zone and called on members “to take all necessary measures to protect civilians under threat of attack in the country.”

Earlier in the same debate exchange, Sanders wagged his finger and mouthed the word “no” when Clinton said, “Senator Sanders voted in 1998 on what I think is fair to call a regime change resolution with respect to Iraq, calling for the end of Saddam Hussein’s regime.” He did.

While it’s true, as Sanders said, that he opposed the war in Iraq under President Bush (and that then Sen. Clinton voted in favor of authorizing the use of force), Clinton was referring to votes cast by Sanders in 1998 when Bill Clinton was president. Sanders voted in favor of the Iraq Liberation Act of 1998, which included a “sense of the Congress” statement that “It should be the policy of the United States to support efforts to remove the regime headed by Saddam Hussein from power in Iraq and to promote the emergence of a democratic government to replace that regime.” He also voted in favor of a resolution that similarly stated, “Congress reaffirms that it should be the policy of the United States to support efforts to remove the regime headed by Saddam Hussein from power in Iraq and to promote the emergence of a democratic  government to replace that regime.”

Inflated Unemployment Numbers

Sanders padded his numbers when speaking of the unemployment rate.

Sanders: Who denies that real unemployment today, including those who have given up looking for work and are working part-time is close to 10 percent? Who denies that African American youth unemployment, real, is over 50 percent.

What Sanders refers to as “real” unemployment actually includes — as he admits — a lot of people who have jobs, plus a lot more who aren’t currently looking for work.

He is referring to one of several “alternative” measures of labor “underutilization” published each month by the Bureau of Labor Statistics. The U-6 measure starts with those the BLS officially classifies as unemployed — meaning those who say they have looked for a job at least once in the past four weeks, but don’t have one.

To that is added those “marginally attached” to the labor force, meaning those who say they want work and have looked for a job in the past year, but aren’t currently looking. Also added are those who say they want a full-time job but are forced to work part time because full-time work isn’t available, or their employer has cut back their hours.

It’s true that the U-6 rate was 9.9 percent in January, which indeed is “close to 10 percent.” But Sanders fails to mention that the rate has dropped substantially since hitting more than 17 percent in 2009 and 2010, and is not far above the 8.4 percent rate that prevailed in January 2007, before the recession. In fact, it’s almost exactly the median rate for all the months since the BLS began publishing the figures in 1994 — which is 9.8 percent.

As for African American youth, the official unemployment rate for blacks age 16 to 19 was 25.2 percent — half the figure cited by Sanders. The U-6 rate for black teens isn’t readily available on the BLS website, and it could well be more than 50 percent, as Sanders claims. But even so it would still include many who have part-time jobs, and many more who aren’t actually looking for work.

Sanders’ Book Blurb

Clinton and Sanders disagreed over whether Sanders had been critical of Obama’s leadership, in particular in a forward or a blurb for a new book. We’ll lay out what exactly Sanders said.

Here’s that exchange:

Clinton: But I want to — I want to follow up on something having to do with leadership, because, you know, today Sen. Sanders said that President Obama failed the presidential leadership test. And this is not the first time that he has criticized President Obama. In the past he has called him weak. He has called him a disappointment.

He wrote a forward for a book that basically argued voters should have buyers’ remorse when it comes to President Obama’s leadership and legacy. …

Sanders: Madam Secretary, that is a low blow. I have worked with President Obama for the last seven years. … As a result of his efforts and the efforts of Joe Biden against unprecedented, I was there in the Senate, unprecedented Republican obstructionism, we have made enormous progress.

But you know what? Last I heard we lived in a democratic society. Last I heard, a United States senator had the right to disagree with the president, including a president who has done such an extraordinary job.

So I have voiced criticisms. You’re right. Maybe you haven’t. I have. But I think to suggest that I have voiced criticism, this blurb that you talk about, you know what the blurb said? The blurb said that the next president of the United States has got to be aggressive in bringing people into the political process.

That’s what I said. That is what I believe.

Sanders didn’t write a forward for the book by liberal radio and TV host Bill Press, but he did write a blurb of praise. Press’ book, titled “Buyer’s Remorse: How Obama Let Progressives Down,” carries a much-shortened version of Sanders’ quote. The blurb across the top is: “Bill Press makes the case … Read this book.”

But Sanders didn’t say that Press made the case that Obama had “let progressives down,” as that blurb may lead some to believe. Sanders’ full quote is close to what he described in the debate. He wrote: “Bill Press makes the case why, long after taking the oath of office, the next president of the United States must keep rallying the people who elected him or her on behalf of progressive causes. That is the only way real change will happen. Read this book.”

We’ve written before about Sanders calling Obama “weak” and a “disappointment.” He said in a July 2011 radio interview: “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.”

Clinton also mentioned a more recent Sanders comment, saying that “today Sen. Sanders said that President Obama failed the presidential leadership test.” Sanders didn’t say Obama had failed a “test,” but did say Obama hadn’t succeeded in terms of presidential leadership.

In an interview for MSNBC’s “The Last Word with Lawrence O’Donnell,” Sanders said: “There’s a huge gap right now between Congress and the American people. What presidential leadership is about is closing that gap.”

Asked if he thought President Obama had succeeded in closing that gap, Sanders said: “No, I don’t. I mean, I think he has made the effort. But I think what we need, when I talk about a political revolution, is bringing millions and millions of people into the political process in a way that does not exist right now.”

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

Sources

Social Security Administration. “Contribution And Benefit Base.” Undated, accessed 12 Feb 2016.

Stephen C. Goss, chief actuary, Social Security Administration. Letter to Sen. Bernie Sanders. 4 Feb 2016.

Stephen C. Goss, chief actuary, Social Security Administration. Letter to Sen. Bernie Sanders. 26 Mar 2015.

Congress.gov. “S.Res.85 – A resolution strongly condemning the gross and systematic violations of human rights in Libya, including violent attacks on protesters demanding democratic reforms, and for other purposes.” Introduced 1 Mar 2011.

Turner, Trish. “Sanders Questions ‘War’ in Libya.” Fox News. 28 Mar 2011.

United Nations website. Resolution 1973. 17 Mar 2011.

Clerk of the House website. Final Vote Results for Roll Call  539. 17 Dec 1998.

Congress.gov. “H.Res.612 – Expressing unequivocal support for the men and women of our Armed Forces who are currently carrying out missions in and around the Persian Gulf region.” Introduced 17 Dec 1998.

Department of Health and Human Services. ASPE Data Point. “Health Insurance Coverage and the Affordable Care Act.” 22 Sep 2015.

 Clemans-Cope, Lisa and Matthew Buettgens and Hannah Recht. “Racial/Ethnic Differences In Uninsurance Rates Under The ACA.” Urban Institute. 16 Dec 2014.

Simon & Schuster U.K. “Buyer’s Remorse: How Obama Let Progressives Down,” by Bill Press. accessed 12 Feb 2016.

FactCheck.org. “FactChecking the MSNBC Democratic Forum.” 9 Nov 2015.

Hunt, Kasie. “Sanders: Obama hasn’t closed presidential leadership gap.” MSNBC.com. 11 Feb 2016.

Bureau of Labor Statistics. “Employment, Hours, and Earnings from the Current Employment Statistics survey (National); Average Weekly Earnings of Production and Nonsupervisory Employees, 1982-1984 Dollars.” Data extracted 12 Feb 2016.

Bureau of Labor Statistics. “Job Openings and Labor Turnover Survey: Job Openings, Seasonally Adjusted.” Data extracted 12 Feb 2016.

Bureau of Labor Statistics. “Employment, Hours, and Earnings from the Current Employment Statistics survey (National); Average Weekly Earnings of Production and Nonsupervisory Employees, 1982-1984 Dollars.” Data extracted 12 Feb 2016.

Bureau of Labor Statistics. “Labor Force Statistics from the Current Population Survey; Unemployment Rate – 16-24 yrs, Seasonally Adjusted.” Data extracted 12 Feb 2016.

Bureau of Labor Statistics. “Labor Force Statistics from the Current Population Survey; Unemployment Rate – 16 yrs and over, Seasonally Adjusted.” Data extracted 12 Feb 2016.

Bureau of Labor Statistics.  Table A-15. Alternative measures of labor underutilization. Data extracted 12 Feb 2016.

Bureau of Labor Statistics. “Labor Force Statistics from the Current Population Survey; Total unemployed, plus all marginally attached workers plus total employed part time for economic reasons, as a percent of all civilian labor force plus all marginally attached workers Labor force status: Aggregated totals unemployed.” Data extracted 12 Feb 2016.

Bureau of Labor Statistics. “Labor Force Statistics from the Current Population Survey; Unemployment Rate – 16-19 yrs., Black or African American, Seasonally Adjusted.” Data extracted 12 Feb 2016.