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FactChecking the New Hampshire Democratic Debate

In advance of the first primary, the candidates twisted the facts on gun manufacturers, health care, Iraq, Iran and military spending.


Four days before the New Hampshire primary, seven Democratic presidential candidates debated. We found factual distortions on several issues:

  • Former Vice President Joe Biden said Sen. Bernie Sanders “voted to give the gun manufacturers … a loophole that does not allow them to be sued for the crimes they have created.” The law generally shields gun makers from civil lawsuits resulting from the misuse of firearms or ammunition, but it does include some exceptions to allow for suits.
  • Sen. Amy Klobuchar accused former South Bend Mayor Pete Buttigieg of flip-flopping on support for Medicare for All, citing a 2018 tweet in which Buttigieg said he supported it “indubitably.” Buttigieg says he supports a Medicare-for-all-who-want-it plan, which he says would put the U.S. on a “glide path” that leads to “a Medicare for All environment.”
  • Businessman Tom Steyer claimed that President Barack Obama got “Iran to give up its nuclear ambitions.” Iran agreed to a nuclear deal, but its intent is unknown. The agreement could delay, rather than end, its ambition.
  • Sanders once again trotted out some of his well-worn claims about health care, including the false idea that the U.S. spends more than twice as much per capita as “any other country” on health care. Six other nations spend more than half of what the U.S. does. 
  • Sanders also claimed that there are 87 million Americans who are uninsured or underinsured — a statistic that includes more than 19 million people who have insurance, but who had gaps in coverage the preceding year — and that there are half a million people “going bankrupt … [b]ecause they have cancer or heart disease, or Alzheimer’s.” That tally is for filings in which medical expenses or bills contributed to the bankruptcy; it does not necessarily mean medical factors were the only reason.
  • Biden again claimed he voted to authorize military action against Iraq in 2002 after President Bush “said he was not going to go into Iraq.” In fact, Bush said war “may” be required.
  • Biden boasted of coordinating the withdrawal of 156,000 U.S. troops from Iraq during Obama’s first term, but was silent on sending 5,000 U.S. troops back to fight Islamic State insurgents during the second term.
  • Sen. Elizabeth Warren again pitched her “2-cent” wealth tax, but neglected to mention that it would be a 6% tax on net worth over $1 billion.
  • Biden and Sanders argued over the cost of Sanders’ Medicare for All plan, but they again talked past each other. The plan would cost “double” current federal health spending, per some estimates, as Biden said; Sanders correctly cited estimates for total health spending under current law.
  • Sanders said the world spends “$1.8 trillion a year, collectively, on weapons of destruction,” but that figure represents the total global military expenditure — not just weapons spending.

The Feb. 7 debate was hosted by ABC News, WMUR-TV in New Hampshire and Apple News.

Lawsuits Against Gun Manufacturers

Biden said Sanders voted to allow gun manufactures to not be sued “for the crimes they have created.” The law that Sanders originally supported does allow lawsuits in some cases.

Biden: The biggest mistake that Sen. Sanders made, he voted to give the gun manufacturers — the only major industry in America — a loophole that does not allow them to be sued for the crimes they have created.

Sanders voted in favor of the Protection of Lawful Commerce in Arms Act of 2005, which largely protects licensed manufacturers, dealers, sellers of firearms or ammunition, and trade associations from civil lawsuits over the misuse of guns or ammunition.

But as the Congressional Research Service wrote in a 2012 report, the legislation — which President George W. Bush signed into law — included six exceptions where civil suits could still be brought. The exceptions include cases in which a firearm seller acted with negligence, cases involving the transfer of a firearm with the knowledge that it would be used to commit a crime, and cases in which manufacturers and sellers marketed or sold a firearm in violation of state or federal law.

For example, in November, the Supreme Court declined to dismiss a 2015 lawsuit the families of victims of the Sandy Hook shooting filed against Remington Arms Co. for the way it marketed the assault-style rifle Adam Lanza used to kill 26 people in the 2012 school shooting. A Connecticut judge said the case will go to trial in 2021.

More than a decade after he voted for the 2005 bill, Sanders switched positions and signed on as a cosponsor of an unsuccessful bill that sought to repeal the law he helped enact.

Did Buttigieg Flip on Medicare for All?

Klobuchar accused Buttigieg of flip-flopping on support for Medicare for All, citing a 2018 tweet in which Buttigieg said he supported it “indubitably” and “affirmatively.” Buttigieg does not support the Medicare for All plan proposed by Sanders, but Buttigieg maintains that his plan to offer Medicare as an option in the Affordable Care Act exchanges would put the U.S. on a “glide path” that leads to “a Medicare for All environment.”

Klobuchar: And Pete, while you have a different plan now, you sent out a tweet just a few years ago that said henceforth, forthwith, indubitably, affirmatively, you are for Medicare For All for the ages, and so I would like to point out that what leadership is about is taking a position, looking at things, and sticking with them.

Buttigieg: Just to be clear, the truth is that I have been consistent throughout in my position on delivering health care for every American.

Here’s the tweet Klobuchar was referring to:

At the time, Buttigieg was the mayor of South Bend, and not yet a candidate for president.

As a candidate, Buttigieg has proposed a more centrist health care proposal than some Democrats. He does not support the Medicare for All plan proposed by Sanders, which would expand Medicare, which now covers primarily those age 65 and older and some with disabilities, to everyone, creating a new universal, single-payer health care system in the United States. Rather, Buttigieg is proposing what he calls “Medicare for All Who Want It.” It would essentially allow people to buy into Medicare through the Affordable Care Act exchanges. Those who are eligible would get subsidies to pay for it, and the cost would be capped at 8.5% of a person’s income. But it would not force people into Medicare if they choose to keep the private insurance they currently have.

“Only in the last few months did it become the case that Medicare for all was defined by politicians to mean ending private insurance, and I’ve never believed that that’s the right pathway,” Buttigieg said, in an interview with the Nevada Independent on Oct. 25. “I still think that we should move toward an environment of Medicare for all.”

(Sanders introduced a version of his Medicare for All plan in his 2016 presidential campaign, and it has always meant ending private insurance. But there have been several public plan options proposed in Congress that seek to make progress toward universal coverage.)

Buttigieg maintains that his commitment to universal health care remains and that his plan will ultimately lead to universal Medicare, because over time he believes people will choose it.

“And I really do believe the public alternative will be better,” Buttigieg said in a CNN interview on Sept. 19. “It could well be the glide path that leads to a Medicare for All environment.”

“I believe that politicians who talk about things like Medicare for all should have some account of the glide path to get there,” Buttigieg said in an interview with Rachel Maddow on MSNBC on April 15. “That’s why I described how I think if we design it in the right way, making a version of Medicare available on the exchanges for people to buy into as an option will be the pathway to get there.”

Did Iran ‘Give Up Its Nuclear Ambitions’?

Steyer claimed that Obama got “Iran to give up its nuclear ambitions.” This is a matter of dispute.

Iran’s intent is unknown, but the Iran nuclear agreement could also be viewed as curbing or delaying the country’s ambition — not ending it.

The Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, or JCPOA, was implemented in 2016. Its aim was to prevent Iran from developing a nuclear weapon. It attempts to do this by requiring Iran to reduce the number of operating centrifuges and its stockpile of uranium, while allowing International Atomic Energy Agency inspectors to monitor Iran’s declared nuclear facilities.

In exchange, Iran won relief from international sanctions and the ability to continue to enrich uranium for peaceful purposes.

However, the deal contained sunset provisions, “which lift physical restrictions on Iran’s nuclear activities over a period of 10-15 years,” as explained in a 67-page guidebook published by the Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs at Harvard University. 

“If fully implemented, the physical constraints and verification provisions of this comprehensive nuclear agreement will effectively prevent Iran from producing fissile material for nuclear weapons at its declared nuclear facilities for at least 10 to 15 years,” the Belfer guide to the Iran deal says.

The nonpartisan Arms Control Association said something similar in its August 2015 analysis of the agreement.

“No single element blocks Iran’s pathway to nuclear weapons, but taken together, the nuclear restrictions and monitoring form a comprehensive system that will put nuclear weapons out of Iran’s reach for at least 15 years,” the Arms Control Association analysis said.

Under Trump, the U.S. has withdrawn from the nuclear agreement and reimposed sanctions on Iran. The president and other Republicans have criticized the deal for allowing Iran to continue to enrich uranium and giving it access to billions of dollars in frozen assets.

In another report on the nuclear deal, the Belfer Center summed up the arguments for and against the Iran deal. Those who believe the deal does not prevent Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons say the “nuclear agreement does not represent a strategic shift away from nuclear weapons, only a tactical decision to postpone those ambitions in order to get relief from international sanctions,” the report said.

In announcing the deal in August 2015, Obama described it as “a detailed arrangement that permanently prohibits Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon.”

But even Obama has acknowledged that the deal may not end Iran’s nuclear ambitions, but delay it.

“Essentially, we’re purchasing for 13, 14, 15 years assurances that the breakout is at least a year,” Obama told NPR in August 2015. “And then in years 13 and 14, it is possible that those breakout times would have been much shorter. But at that point we have much better ideas about what it is that their program involves.”

Sanders’ Health Care Claims

Sanders repeated several of his go-to lines about health care that don’t entirely reflect the facts. 

First, citing high health care costs, the Vermont senator said, “We are spending twice as much per capita on health care as do the people of any other country.”

He has made some version of this claim since at least 2015, including in a CNN town hall last year and the September and January Democratic debates. It’s still not true.

According to the most recent Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development data, which is for 2018, U.S. per capita spending on health care totaled $10,586. That’s twice as much as every country, except for six.

Sanders is correct that the U.S. spends a lot more than other nations. It spends more than double the $3,992 average for OECD countries. But Switzerland, Norway, Germany, Sweden, Austria and Denmark all pay a little more than half of what the U.S. does.

Later in the debate, Sanders said there were “87 million people uninsured or underinsured” and “500,000 people going bankrupt. For what reason? Because they have cancer or heart disease, or Alzheimer’s.”

As we have explained before, the 87 million uninsured or underinsured number comes from a Commonwealth Fund survey, which generally backs the figure. But the tally includes 19.3 million people who were insured, but had experienced a gap in coverage in the prior year.

Sanders also didn’t give the whole story behind the 500,000 people “going bankrupt” figure — something he has done before. He presented those bankruptcies as entirely due to health problems and medical bills, but the number stems from a survey that counted the number of bankruptcies in which medical expenses or medical problems either “somewhat” or “very much” contributed.

The survey, which was published as an editorial article in the American Journal of Public Health, found that 66.5% of the participants who declared bankruptcy between 2013 and 2016 cited medical reasons as a contributor. The half a million estimate is derived by applying that percentage to the 750,489 non-business bankruptcies filed in 2019.

Biden on War Authorization

Biden repeated his standard — and inaccurate — defense of his 2002 vote to authorize military action against Saddam Hussein’s Iraq.

Biden: I trusted George Bush to keep his word. He said he was not going to go into Iraq.

But President George W. Bush made no such promise. To the contrary, Bush said publicly in a speech on Oct. 7, 2002, that war was a possibility: “I hope this will not require military action, but it may. And military conflict could be difficult. That was just a few days before the Senate voted 77-23 in favor of the resolution — with Biden, then chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, in the majority.

Furthermore, Biden opposed a move by other Democrats to require that Bush either win United Nations approval of military action or return to Congress for a second authorization. Biden said on the Senate floor that it would strengthen the president’s hand in pressing the U.N. for more aggressive inspections of possible weapons of mass destruction if the president could say, “I am already authorized, if you fail to do that, to use force against” Saddam Hussein.

We addressed this Biden claim at greater length in our Jan. 15 story “FactChecking the January Democratic Debate.”

Biden on Bringing Troops Home

Biden also spun his role in bringing troops home from Iraq when he was vice president.

Biden: The president [Obama] turned to me with the entire security apparatus and said, “Joe, I want you to organize getting 156,000 troops out of Iraq.” I did that. I did that.

It’s true that in 2009 Biden chaired a committee that oversaw the troop withdrawal, while also keeping an eye on economic and political issues in Iraq. The Biden committee included representatives from the Defense Department, the Joint Chiefs of Staff, the Treasury Department and other agencies.

But what Biden fails to mention is that later — in Obama’s second term, with Biden still vice president — the U.S. sent troops back into Iraq to combat the Islamic State fighters who had occupied much of the country. Near the end of the Obama administration, in late September 2016, the number of U.S. troops deployed exceeded 5,000.

Warren’s Wealth Tax

Warren referenced her proposed wealth tax twice during the debate, both times calling it a “2-cent wealth tax.”

It’s true that part of her plan includes an annual tax of 2 cents on every dollar of wealth over $50 million, but she didn’t mention that her amended plan would call on those with more than $1 billion of wealth to pay triple that amount.

Warren’s original plan included the 2% tax on net worth over $50 million and a 3% tax on net worth over $1 billion. But she later introduced a plan to pay for Medicare for All that included increasing the higher threshold tax to 6%.

Warren aims to spend the money raised by those taxes largely on improving education, as we detailed in June. She says her plan would cover: universal child care for every child age 0 to 5; universal pre-K for every 3- and 4-year old; higher wages for child care workers and preschool teachers; tuition and fees for all public technical schools, 2-year colleges and 4-year colleges; $50 billion for historically black colleges and universities; and forgiveness of student loan debt for 95% of those with such debt. It would also provide $100 billion over 10 years to combat the opioid crisis and make “down payments” on a Green New Deal and Medicare for All.

However, some economists have questioned whether her plan would raise as much as she expects.

As we’ve written before, the Penn Wharton Budget Model projected that, if implemented in 2021, the taxes would raise between $2.3 trillion and $2.7 trillion over 10 years. That’s about $1 trillion to $1.4 trillion less than the Warren campaign’s estimate. PWBM also estimated that the wealth tax would reduce gross domestic product in 2050 by about 1-2%, depending on how the money is spent.

The wealth tax, though, is a frequent talking point for Warren, who mentioned it on the debate stage during a discussion of racism in America and highlighted it in her closing remarks, saying:

Warren: Everyone says they love the kids, but here’s the deal, it’s time to come up with real plans to make that happen. I’ve talked before about a 2-cent wealth tax, but the whole idea behind it is we could do early childhood education and good quality child care, universal pre-K for every 3-year-old and 4-year-old in America, and we can stop exploiting the people — largely black and brown women — who do this work and raise the wages of every child care worker and preschool teacher in America.

Maybe so, but it would cost those with more than $1 billion in net worth 6% of their wealth over that amount, not 2%.

Medicare for All, By the Numbers

Biden and Sanders argued over the cost of Sanders’ Medicare for All plan. Biden criticized Sanders for not providing a price tag for his plan and said it would cost “double …what the taxpayers are paying for every single program we spend on in the United States.” Sanders said what Biden wanted, the status quo, would cost “$50 trillion … over the next 10 years.”

Both have a point. We’ll go through the numbers.

Sanders hasn’t provided a price tag for his plan, and many of the details would need to be ironed out before a solid estimate could be calculated. Several organizations have come up with varying estimates. In an estimate published online by Sanders’ 2016 presidential campaign, Gerald Friedman, a professor of economics at the University of Massachusetts Amherst, said the plan would increase government spending by $13.8 trillion over 10 years. But that’s the low-end of the estimates. Others have ranged from $25 trillion to $34 trillion over 10 years. 

That’s more than double what the federal government now spends on health care programs. Total federal health care spending was $1 trillion in 2018, according to the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services, and a projected $14 trillion over 10 years (2018-2027). See Table 16 under projections.

That would put the cost at “double” current federal health care spending.

Sanders, meanwhile, cited the projection from CMS for total national health care expenditures — which includes all government, employer, individual and insurer spending. That totals a projected $47 trillion over 10 years — nearly $50 trillion.

What Biden ignores is that federal health spending would be nearly all health spending under Medicare for All — so payments by insurers, individuals, employers and even state and local governments would shift to the federal government. What Sanders ignores is that some estimates on the cost of his plan expect total national health spending to increase from the status quo.

A recent estimate by the Urban Institute found a single-payer plan like Sanders’ would increase national health spending by $720 billion in 2020.

There’s still guesswork involved without more concrete details on the plan, such as what rates it would pay health care providers. A February 2019 analysis by the Committee for a Responsible Federal Budget said that total national health spending “would likely change by no more than a few trillion dollars over the decade.” And whether that change was up or down would depend “on the whether the increased cost of expanding coverage (by making health insurance more generous and offering it to more people) is larger or smaller than the amount saved from lower provider payments, drug payments, and administrative spending.”

Sanders on Global ‘Weapons’ Spending

In discussing his hope to galvanize international support to collectively combat climate change, Sanders inaccurately characterized a statistic on global military spending.

“Here is my dream — maybe it’s a radical dream,” Sanders said. “But maybe, just maybe, given the crisis of climate change, the world can understand that instead of spending $1.8 trillion a year, collectively, on weapons of destruction, designed to kill each other, maybe we pool our resources and fight our common enemy, which is climate change.”

That $1.8 trillion represents spending on more than just weapons. The figure is the 2018 total world military expenditure, as calculated by the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute, a think tank that researches conflict, armaments and more.

“Military expenditure refers to all government spending on current military forces and activities, including salaries and benefits, operational expenses, arms and equipment purchases, military construction, research and development, and central administration, command and support,” the organization says of the figure. “SIPRI therefore discourages the use of terms such as ‘arms spending’ when referring to military expenditure, as spending on armaments is usually only a minority of the total.”

— by Eugene Kiely, Brooks Jackson, Lori Robertson, Robert Farley, D’Angelo Gore, Jessica McDonald, Saranac Hale Spencer, Angelo Fichera and Isabella Fertel


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