McCain and Obama contradicted each other repeatedly during their first debate, and each volunteered some factual misstatements as well. Here's how we sort them out:
McCain misrepresented Obama's plan by claiming he'd be "handing the health care system over to the federal government." Obama would expand some government programs but would allow people to keep their current plans or chose from private ones, as well.
McCain claimed Gen. Dwight D. Eisenhower had drafted a letter of resignation from the Army to be sent in case the 1944 D-Day landing at Normandy turned out to be a failure. Ike prepared a letter taking responsibility, but he didn't mention resigning.
For full details, as well as other dubious claims and statements, please read our full Analysis section.
The first of three scheduled debates between Republican Sen. John McCain and Democratic Sen. Barack Obama took place Sept. 26 on the campus of the University of Mississippi at Oxford. It was sponsored by the Commission on Presidential Debates. It was carried live on national television networks and was moderated by Jim Lehrer, executive editor and anchor of the PBS "NewsHour" program.
We noted these factual misstatements:
Did Kissinger Back Obama?
McCain attacked Obama for his declaration that he would meet with leaders of Iran and other hostile nations "without preconditions." To do so with Iran, McCain said, "isn't just naive; it's dangerous." Obama countered by saying former Secretary of State Henry Kissinger – a McCain adviser – agreed with him:
McCain rejected Obama's claim:
So who's right? Kissinger did in fact say a few days earlier at a forum of former secretaries of state that he favors very high-level talks with Iran – without conditions:
Later, McCain's running mate, Sarah Palin, was asked about this by CBS News anchor Katie Couric, and Palin said, "I've never heard Henry Kissinger say, 'Yeah, I'll meet with these leaders without preconditions being met.'" Afterward Couric said, "We confirmed Henry Kissinger's position following our interview."
After the McCain-Obama debate, however, Kissinger issued a statement saying he doesn't favor a presidential meeting:
$42,000 per year?
McCain said – and Obama denied – that Obama had voted to increase taxes on "people who make as low as $42,000 a year." McCain was correct – with qualification.
Yes, as we've said before, Obama did in fact vote for a budget resolution that called for higher federal income tax rates on a single, non-homeowner who earned as little as $42,000 per year. A couple filing jointly, however, would have had to earn at least $83,000 per year to be affected. A family of four with income up to $90,000 would not have been affected.
The resolution actually would not have altered taxes without additional legislation. It called generally for allowing most of the 2001 and 2003 Bush tax cuts to expire. McCain is referring to the provision that would have allowed the 25 percent tax bracket to return to 28 percent. The tax plan Obama now proposes, however, would not raise the rate on that tax bracket.
Obama contradicted McCain about what Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman Admiral Mike Mullen's said regarding "Obama's plan" for troop withdrawals.
Admiral Mullen did say in a Fox News interview that having a time line for withdrawal would be dangerous.
However, interviewer Chris Wallace had just told Mullen to take Obama out of the equation.
So strictly speaking Mullen was not talking specifically about "Obama's plan." He did say a rigid timetable could have dangerous consequences.
Earmarks Down, Not Up
McCain was way off the mark when he said that earmarks in federal appropriations bills had tripled in the last five years.
In fact, earmarks have actually gone down. According to Citizens Against Government Waste, there was $22.5 billion worth of earmark spending in 2003. By 2008, that figure had come down to $17.2 billion. That's a decrease of 24 percent.
Taxpayers for Common Sense, another watchdog group, said in 2008 that "Congress has cut earmarks by 23 percent from the record 2005 levels," according to its analysis.
$3 million to study the DNA of bears?
And while we're on the subject of earmarks, McCain repeated a misleading line we've heard before.
McCain's been playing this for laughs since 2003. The study in question was done by the U.S. Geological Survey, and it relied in part on federal appropriations. Readers (and politicians) may disagree on whether a noninvasive study of grizzly bear population and habitat is a waste of money. McCain clearly thinks it is – but on the other hand, he never moved to get rid of the earmark. In fact, he voted for the bill that made appropriations for the study. He did propose some changes to the bill, but none that nixed the bear funding.
Iraqi Surplus Exaggerated
Obama was out of date in saying the Iraqi government has "79 billion dollars," when he argued that the U.S. should stop spending money on the war in Iraq.
As we've said before, there was a time when the country could have had as much as $79 billion, but that time has passed. What the Iraqis actually "have" is $29.4 billion in the bank. The Government Accountability Office projected in August that Iraq's 2008 budget surplus could range anywhere from $38.2 billion to $50.3 billion, depending on oil revenue, price and volume. Then, in early August, the Iraqi legislature passed a $21 billion supplemental spending bill, which was omitted from the GAO's surplus tally since it was still under consideration. The supplemental will be completely funded by this year's surplus. So the range of what the Iraqi's could have at year's end is actually $47 billion to $59 billion. The $79 billion figure is outdated and incorrect.
$700 billion for oil?
McCain repeated an exaggerated claim that the U.S. is sending $700 billion per year to hostile countries.
That's not accurate. McCain also made this claim in his acceptance speech at the Republican National Convention. He's referring to the amount of money the U.S. spends in importing oil. But the number is inflated. In fact, we actually pay more like $536 billion for the oil we need. And one-third of those payments go to Canada, Mexico and the U.K.
(Note: A few of our readers messaged us, after we first noted McCain's mistake, with the thought that he was referring to foreign aid and not to oil. If so he's even farther off than we supposed: The entire budget for the State Department and International Programs works out to just $51.3 billion.)
Tax Cut Recipients
Obama overstated how many people would save on taxes under his plan:
That should be 95 percent of families, not 95 percent of "American people." An analysis by the Urban-Brookings Tax Policy Center found that Obama's plan would decrease taxes for 95.5 percent of families with children. Overall, 81.3 percent of households would get a tax cut under his proposal.
Health Care Hyperbole
Obama and McCain traded incorrect statements on each other's health care plan.
As we said before, McCain's plan doesn't call for taxing employers on health care benefits; it would instead tax employees. As the law stands now, employees don't pay taxes on the dollar value of their health insurance benefits. Under McCain's plan, they would.
McCain also misrepresented Obama's plan when he said that his opponent favored "handing the health care system over to the federal government."
McCain made a similar claim in his acceptance speech, when he said that Obama's plans would "force families into a government run health care system." We called it false then and we stand by that. Obama's plan mandates coverage for children, but not for adults, and it does not require anyone to be covered by a nationalized system. Obama's plan expands the insurance coverage offered by the government, but allows people to keep their own plans or choose from private plans as well.
Ike Was No Quitter
McCain mangled his military history:
One of them was a letter congratulating the great members of the military and allies that had conducted and succeeded in the greatest invasion in history, still to this day, and forever.
And he wrote out another letter, and that was a letter of resignation from the United States Army for the failure of the landings at Normandy.
The story is widely circulated in military circles but not entirely true. Eisenhower (then a general, not yet a president) did in fact write a letter taking responsibility should the D-Day invasion fail. But Eisenhower's letter does not mention resigning. Here's the full text:
No mention of quitting the Army, or his command.
A Longer Timetable
Obama stretched out his schedule for withdrawing troops from Iraq. During the debate, Obama said we could "reduce" the number of combat troops in 16 months:
But in Oct. 2007, Obama supported removing all combat troops from Iraq
within 16 months:
The quote appears in "Barack Obama and Joe Biden on Defense Issues" – a
position paper that was still available on the campaign's Web site as Obama spoke.
Still Soft on Iran?
McCain repeated the false insinuation that Obama opposed naming Iran's Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps as a terrorist organization.
Obama has in fact said that the IRGC should be named a terrorist group. He was a cosponsor of the Iran Counter-Proliferation Act, which, among other things, named the IRGC a terrorist organization. What he voted against was the Kyl-Lieberman amendment, which also called for the terrorist group distinction. But Obama said that he opposed the amendment on the grounds that it was "saber-rattling."
Who's Naive on Georgia?
McCain called Obama's initial statement on the conflict in Georgia "naive." It's worth noting Obama's words echoed those of the White House.
Again, a little bit of naivete there. He doesn't understand that Russia committed serious aggression against Georgia.
It's true, as McCain said, that during the conflict between Georgia and Russia, Obama said, "Now is the time for Georgia and Russia to show restraint, and to avoid an escalation to full scale war" in his first statement on the conflict. But so did the White House. Press secretary Dana Perino said on Aug. 8, "We urge restraint on all sides – that violence would be curtailed and that direct dialogue could ensue in order to help resolve their differences." We pointed this out when New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani mischaracterized Obama's response to the crisis during the GOP convention.
McCain was went too far when he said, "I saved the taxpayers $6.8 billion by fighting a contract that was negotiated between Boeing and DOD that was completely wrong. And we fixed it and we killed it."
McCain certainly did lead a fight to kill the contract, and the effort ended in prison sentences for defense contractors. But the contract isn't exactly "fixed" yet. In fact, questions have been raised about the role McCain has played in helping a Boeing rival secure the new contract.
After the original Boeing contract to supply refueling airliners was nixed in 2003, the bidding process was reopened. And in early 2007, Boeing rival EADS/Airbus won the bid the second time around. But Boeing filed a protest about the way the bids were processed, and the Government Accountability Office released a report that found in Boeing's favor. In the summary of GAO's investigation, the organization said there were "significant errors" with the bid process and that the directions given to Boeing were "misleading."
Further, the New York Times reported that "McCain's top advisers, including a cochairman of his presidential campaign, were lobbyists for EADS. And Mr. McCain had written to the Defense Department, urging it to ignore a trade dispute between the United States and Europe over whether Airbus received improper subsidies." A liberal campaign finance group ran an ad hitting McCain on the connections back in July and our colleagues at PolitiFact found their attacks to be true, saying: "Center for Responsive Politics prepared a report for PolitiFact that backs [the charge] up. U.S. employees of EADS/Airbus have contributed $15,700 in this election cycle to McCain's campaign."
McCain said Obama was against storing nuclear waste. That's not exactly his position.
Obama's official position is that he does support safe storage of nuclear waste:
Obama fact sheet: Obama will also lead federal efforts to look for a safe, long-term disposal solution based on objective, scientific analysis. In the meantime, Obama will develop requirements to ensure that the waste stored at current reactor sites is contained using the most advanced dry-cask storage technology available. Barack Obama believes that Yucca Mountain is not an option. Our government has spent billions of dollars on Yucca Mountain, and yet there are still significant questions about whether nuclear waste can be safely stored there.
But the McCain campaign has attacked Obama before on this issue, going as far as to claim Obama did not support nuclear energy at all, which was false. Obama has said he supports nuclear as long as it is "clean and safe."
Against Alternative Energy
Obama said that McCain had voted 23 times against alternative energy:
Here's the Obama campaign's list of the 23 votes. We find they're overstating the case. In many instances, McCain voted not against alternative energy but against mandatory use of alternative energy, or he voted in favor of allowing exemptions from these mandates. Only 11 of the 23 votes cited by the Obama campaign involve reducing or eliminating incentives for renewable energy.
Meanwhile, McCain was indignant at the suggestion that he'd voted against alternative energy at all.
But McCain's record says differently. As we say above, he has voted against funding for alternative energy on 11 occasions. He may be in favor of alternative energy in theory, but he has declined opportunities to support it.
In McCain's energy plan, he supports nuclear power and "clean" coal, which are alternative energies. But they don't qualify as renewable energy, such as hydro, solar and wind power. McCain's plan makes a vague promise to "rationalize the current patchwork of temporary tax credits that provide commercial feasibility." The experts we talked to weren't sure what exactly that meant.
Both candidates were right in talking about Obama's NATO subcommittee.
As we've already reported Obama's subcommittee on European Affairs does have jurisdiction over NATO, which is supplying about half of the troops in Afghanistan. His subcommittee does not have jurisdiction over Afghanistan proper.
Getting the Dates Wrong
We also caught McCain getting his congressional history a little wrong.
This isn't quite right. Marines were initially deployed to Lebanon in August 1982. McCain, however, was not elected to the U.S. House until November 1982, more than three months after Marines had already landed.
McCain is referring to a 1983 vote to invoke the War Powers Act. That bill, which Ronald Reagan signed into law on October 12, 1983, authorized an 18-month deployment for the Marines. On October 13, a suicide bomber destroyed the Marine barracks in Beirut. McCain did in fact break with most Republicans to vote against the bill.
"Statement Regarding the Bid Protest Decision Resolving the Aerial Refueling Tanker Protest by The Boeing Company" Government Accountability Office. 18 June 2008.
Isikoff, Michael, "McCain's Boeing Battle Boomerangs," Newsweek. 30 June 2008.
Laurent, Lionel, "Boeing Boomerangs on McCain," Forbers Magazine. 4 March 2008.
Wayne, Leslie, "Audit Says Tanker Deal Is Flawed," New York Times. 19 June 2008.
Tax Policy Center. "Individual Income Tax Brackets, 1945 - 2008." 4 November 2007. Tax Policy Center, 7 July 2008.
"U.S. Imports by Country of Origin." U.S. Energy Information Administration, accessed 5 Sept. 2008.
"Spot Prices, Crude Oil in Dollars per Barrel." U.S. Energy Information Administration, accessed 5 Sept. 2008.
"S. 970: Iran Counter-Proliferation Act of 2007." 8 April 2008.
Thomas.gov. 2 June 2008.
"Sec. 1538 of H.R. 1585." National Defense Authorization Act for Fiscal Year 2008. Thomas.gov. 2 June 2008
U.S. Senate. "Roll Call Vote on Senate Amendment 3017." 26 Sept. 2007. U.S. Senate: Legislation and Records. 2 June 2008.
Grimmett, Richard F. "Congressional Use of Funding Cutoffs Since 1970 Involving U.S. Military Forces and Overseas Deployments." Congressional Research Service. 10 January 2001.
Daggett, Stephen. Costs of Major U.S. Wars. 24 Jul. 2008. Congressional Research Service.
Adair, Bill. Obama "suggested bombing Pakistan". Politifact.com.
Barack Obama and Joe Biden on Defense Issues. Obama for America.
Barack Obama's Plan to Make America A Global Energy Leader. Obama for America.