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Fact-checking the eighth Democratic primary debate

The Washington Post logo The Washington Post 2020-02-08 Glenn Kessler, Salvador Rizzo, Sarah Cahlan
Democratic 2020 U.S. presidential candidate Senator Elizabeth Warren speaks at the Democratic 2020 U.S. presidential candidates debate in Manchester, New Hampshire, U.S., Feb 7, 2020. REUTERS/Brian Snyder © Thomson Reuters Democratic 2020 U.S. presidential candidate Senator Elizabeth Warren speaks at the Democratic 2020 U.S. presidential candidates debate in Manchester, New Hampshire, U.S., Feb 7, 2020. REUTERS/Brian Snyder

The eighth Democratic presidential debate of the 2020 campaign, hosted by ABC, WMUR (Channel 9), and Apple News, had seven candidates, lasted 2½ hours — and did not have many statements that merited fact-checking. Here are eight claims that caught our attention. Our practice is not to award Pinocchios in debate roundups.

“The reality is, on my watch, drug arrests in South Bend were lower than the national average, and specifically to marijuana, lower than in Indiana.”

— Former mayor Pete Buttigieg

Buttigieg was challenged by moderator Linsey Davis over the fact that when he was mayor of South Bend, Ind., a black resident of the city was four times more likely to be arrested for marijuana possession than a white resident was. This was a point raised in an Intercept article that said the rate was 4.3 times for a black person than for a white person between 2012 and 2018, compared with 3.5 times in the state of Indiana for that period.

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His response was a non sequitur. Davis quickly noted that more blacks were arrested in 2012 than in 2018 (the last year for which there are data). Data supplied to the FBI show that 151 blacks and 75 whites were arrested in 2012, compared with 186 blacks and 96 whites in 2018. The number of blacks arrested dipped as low as 71 in 2013, but in every year, far more blacks than whites were arrested for marijuana possession, even though South Bend has a black population of about 27,000 and a white population of around 64,000. Between 2012 and 2018, 805 blacks were arrested vs. 449 whites. So even though blacks are about 30 percent of the population, they were arrested at twice the rate of whites. 

The Buttigieg campaign issued a statement claiming that in his second mayoral term, black residents in South Bend were less likely to be arrested for marijuana than residents of Indiana in general. The numbers were presented as arrests as a percentage of the entire population. The campaign did not respond to a question for equivalent data for his first term.

In 1988, I probably lost a race for Congress … because in 1988, I said that we should ban the sale and distribution of assault weapons in this country. That was 30 years ago. Furthermore, I am very proud that today I have a D-minus voting record from the NRA.”

— Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.)

Sanders likes to talk about his D-minus rating from the NRA and his loss in his first congressional race. He says the NRA’s endorsement of his opponents during his first congressional race in 1988 may have cost him the election. This was one of Sanders’s repeated claims in the 2016 campaign, so we dug into this deeply then.

Sanders’s most recent grade from the NRA (technically the NRA’s political action committee, the NRA-Political Victory Fund) was, indeed, a D-minus. Since 1992, the first year the NRA issued a grade for Sanders, he has received between a C-minus and an F.

Since 1988, Sanders has been consistent on restricting the use of certain semiautomatic firearms (often called “assault weapons”). The evidence for whether his stance had anything to do with his 1988 loss is mixed. He could have just as easily lost the election because he split votes with a Democrat, as opposed to being the only candidate without an NRA endorsement. The NRA had endorsed one of his opponents, Peter Smith, in 1988 because Smith signed the NRA pledge to not support “additional restrictive firearms legislation.”

But Smith changed his mind once he was in Congress and supported a ban on certain semiautomatic rifles. That angered the NRA, which actively campaigned for Sanders in 1990 to oust Smith. That’s how Sanders first won a seat in the House.

“Everyone on this stage except Amy [Klobuchar] and me is either a billionaire or is receiving help from PACs that can do unlimited spending. So if you really want to live where you say, then put your money where your mouth is and say no to the PACs.”

— Sen. Elizabeth Warren (Mass.)

Warren has sworn off PAC money for her presidential run and said all her opponents for the Democratic nomination (save for Klobuchar) should be doing the same.

The bids of Joe Biden, Pete Buttigieg and Andrew Yang are all benefiting from the activities of super PACs, which can raise and spend unlimited amounts of money. Tom Steyer is a billionaire. Bernie Sanders is supported by a 501(c)4 group called Our Revolution.

“Our Revolution can raise unlimited sums from wealthy patrons that dwarf the limits faced by candidates and conventional PACs,” according to the Associated Press. “Unlike a super PAC, however, the group doesn’t have to disclose its donors — a stream of revenue commonly referred to as ‘dark money.’”

Warren is not backed by a super PAC, but she gets air cover from the Progressive Change Campaign Committee, a political action committee that is limited in the amount of money it can raise from individual donors. The PAC has an affiliated nonprofit, P Street Project, that can raise and spend unlimited amounts of money.

The PCCC tweeted during the debate: “If you believe Super PACs & anonymous wealthy donors have no place in our primary, chip in to fund @ewarren’s grassroots-funded campaign for big, structural change now, & our work electing progressives who will fight for campaign finance reform.”

(Sanders and Warren supporters say Our Revolution and the PCCC are grass-roots-funded.)

“The president 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.”

— Former vice president Joe Biden

This is one of Biden’s go-to defenses when he’s challenged on his 2002 vote authorizing the use of force in Iraq.

During President Barack Obama’s first term, Biden chaired a committee that made sensitive decisions about the pace and scope of the withdrawal of nearly 150,000 troops. But the Obama administration didn’t end there. Biden usually leaves out what happened in the second term.

By 2014, with no U.S. forces in the picture, the Islamic State terrorist group began to take control of parts of Iraq. By 2016, Obama had sent 5,000 U.S. troops back into the country to reverse the Islamic State tide. Biden was still the vice president. We previously gave Two Pinocchios to Biden for this selective retelling.

“I made a mistake. I said it 14 years ago. I trusted George Bush to keep his word. He said he was not going to go into Iraq. He said he was only using this to unite the United Nations, to insist we get inspectors in to see what Saddam was doing when we got elected.”

— Biden

This is Biden’s standard line in explaining his vote to support an invasion of Iraq. But this version of history is disputed by former president George W. Bush.

“I’m sure it’s just an innocent mistake of memory, but that recollection is flat wrong,” Bush spokesman Freddy Ford told the Fact Checker. He included a link to a podcast titled “A Polite Word for Liar.”

Here’s what happened.

Biden, during the Senate debate on a resolution authorizing the use of force against Iraq on Oct. 10, 2002, argued that the resolution was designed to ensure diplomacy. But he also fought against alternatives offered by more-liberal Democrats that would have required Bush first to win U.N. authority for an invasion or else seek a new war resolution from Congress.

“The reason for my saying not two steps now is it strengthens his hand, in my view, to say to all the members of the Security Council: ‘I just want you to know, if you do not give me something strong, I am already authorized, if you fail to do that, to use force against this fellow,’” Biden argued on the Senate floor.

The U.N. ordered weapons inspectors back into Iraq, but the administration became impatient with the results, calling for the inspections to end almost as soon as they started. Irritating allies, the administration argued that the inspections could not be allowed to drag on because the U.S. military buildup in the Persian Gulf region had proceeded too far to turn back from war.

Nevertheless, Biden continued to express support for his vote. “I supported the resolution to go to war. I am not opposed to war to remove weapons of mass destruction from Iraq,” he said in a February 2003 speech. “I am not opposed to war to remove Saddam [Hussein] from those weapons if it comes to that.” But he added that Bush was not being straight with the American people about the possible financial and military burden.

In a Washington Post opinion article just before the conflict began, Biden unsuccessfully argued that an invasion should be delayed until the administration obtained a U.N. resolution authorizing an attack. That was the position taken by Senate liberals that Biden had previously dismissed during the debate about the war resolution.

Bush, in his book “Decision Points,” wrote: “Some members of Congress would later claim they were not voting to authorize war but only to continue diplomacy. They must not have read the resolution. Its language was unmistakable: ‘The President is authorized to use the Armed Forces of the United States as he determines to be necessary and appropriate in order to defend the national security of the United States against the continuing threat posed by Iraq; and enforce all relevant United Nations Security Council resolutions regarding Iraq.’ ”

“We are spending twice as much per capita on health care as the people of any other country.”

— Sanders

Sanders often says this line in debates, but he never gets it quite right. He apparently meant to say that the United States spends twice as much as other developed countries — defined as members of the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development. Instead, he said twice as much as any other country.

The United States pays far more per capita on health care than any other major country in the world ($9,892 in 2016) — twice as much as Canada ($4,753). The OECD median was $4,033. But Switzerland is a major developed country, and U.S. costs are 25 percent higher than Switzerland’s ($7,919). These figures come from a study by a team led by a researchers from the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health.

More recent OECD estimates show the United States spent $10,586 per person, compared with Switzerland ($7,317 per person), Norway ($6,187 per person) and Germany ($5,986 per person). All of those are more than half of U.S. spending, though the OECD average was just under $4,000. So Sanders would have been correct if he spoke about the average or median of other developed countries.

500,000 people going bankrupt for what reason? Because they have cancer or heart disease or Alzheimer’s.”

— Sanders

Sanders often repeats this talking point, usually asserting that 500,000 people go bankrupt every year because of medical bills. That’s approximately two-thirds of the 750,000 total bankruptcies per year.

We’ve previously given Three Pinocchios to Sanders for this claim. He tweaked his wording at this debate, attributing the bankruptcies to serious diseases and not just medical bills.

The 500,000 figure is based on an editorial published by the American Journal of Public Health in March. The researchers surveyed debtors and asked about factors that contributed to their bankruptcies.

Forty-four percent said either medical bills or loss of work related to illness “very much” contributed; 22 percent said either medical bills or illness “somewhat” contributed. Combining both groups of respondents, the study estimated 530,000 bankruptcies a year.

But the study doesn’t establish that all 530,000 bankruptcies were caused by medical bills. It’s broader because it measures medical bills and illness. It measures contributions to bankruptcy, not causes. And it includes respondents who said medical bills or illness factored into their bankruptcy either “somewhat” or “very much.”

A different study published in the New England Journal of Medicine looked at the same question of medical bankruptcies and found that the rate was far lower: 30,000 to 50,000 a year. However, this study was limited to non-elderly people who were admitted to the hospital for non-birth-related reasons, so it covers only a subset of all people facing medical debt.

The research team Sanders cited once included Elizabeth Warren, who contributed to earlier versions of the study when she was a Harvard University professor. Interestingly, though, the senator from Massachusetts never makes the same claim about 500,000 medical bankruptcies a year.

“If we do what Joe wants, we’ll be spending some $50 trillion on health care over the next 10 years. That’s the status quo, Joe. That’s what Health and Human Services says.”

— Sanders

Sanders has twice before in the debates referred to a “status quo” of spending $50 trillion over the next 10 years. In the third debate, he said the cost of the status quo would be $50 trillion over 10 years, compared with more than $30 trillion for Medicare-for-all. When we queried the Sanders campaign during the debate for the source of the $50 trillion figure, we were directed to posts that were written by Paul Waldman for The Post’s “The Plum Line,” an opinion column.

Waldman compared a government projection that national health spending would be about $50 trillion over the next decade with an estimate that projected the federal cost of Medicare-for-all as $32.6 trillion. In one column cited by the campaign, Waldman wrote: “So if Medicare-for-all actually costs $40 trillion, we would save $10 trillion. Hooray!”

Waldman told The Fact Checker he has not read academic studies that looked closely at the impact of a Medicare-for-all plan on national health expenditures. It turned out that all but one of five major studies, from the left to the right, predict the Sanders plan would increase health spending, not reduce it. The author of the fifth predicts a decline but said Sanders’s statement is exaggerated.

We ended up giving Sanders Three Pinocchios for his comment.

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