October 7, 2008, 9:51 pm
Check Point: The Second Presidential Debate
By The New York Times
The Times’s Peter Baker, Julie Bosman, Kitty Bennett, Jackie Calmes, Michael Luo, Robert Pear, Andrew Revkin, Larry Rohter, Kevin Sack, David E. Sanger, Matthew L. Wald and Jeff Zeleny are examining the policies and statements of Senator John McCain and Senator Barack Obama in real time tonight.
In their second debate Tuesday night, Senators Barack Obama and John McCain indulged in their fair share of misrepresentations. Here are some of them.
Health Costs Senator Obama said health costs were breaking family budgets. “If you’ve got health insurance,” he said, “most of you have seen your premiums double over the last eight years, and your co-payments and deductibles have gone up 30 percent just in the last year alone. And if you’re a small business, it’s a crushing burden.”
Mr. Obama was generally correct in what he said about premiums. Premiums doubled from 1999 to 2007, according to annual surveys conducted jointly by the Kaiser Family Foundation and the Health Research and Educational Trust. The latest report, issued two weeks ago, shows that the average annual premium for employer-sponsored insurance rose 90 percent from 2000 to 2008 for individual coverage, to $4,704 this year, while the average premium for family coverage increased 97 percent, to $12,680.
Deductibles increased significantly last year, but they vary greatly among plans, and Mr. Obama may have overstated the typical increase.
For workers in preferred-provider organizations with deductibles, the average annual deductible for family coverage increased to $1,344 in 2008, from $1,040 in 2007, according to the Kaiser survey. On the other hand, more workers are choosing high-deductible policies, often in combination with savings accounts, and the average deductible for family coverage in these plans was much higher - - about $3,500 this year, as in 2007, according to the Kaiser survey.
Health Care Plans Both candidates mischaracterized elements of their opponent’s health care proposals and may have oversold their own.
Mr. McCain, in arguing that Mr. Obama favors government solutions to the plight of the uninsured, charged that Mr. Obama would “impose mandates” on small businesses to provide coverage for employees and on parents to insure their children. As Mr. Obama pointed out in response, Mr. McCain was only half right.
“If you’re a small businessperson and you don’t insure your employees, Senator Obama will fine you,” Mr. McCain said. “He’ll fine you. That’s remarkable. If you’re a parent and you’re struggling to get health insurance for your children, Senator Obama will fine you.”
Mr. Obama would, in fact, require medium and large employers to either provide coverage to their workers or pay a tax into a fund that would help subsidize coverage for low-income people. But his plan specifically exempts small businesses from the requirement. In fact, Mr. Obama proposes to offer a substantial tax credit to small businesses to encourage them to provide insurance.
Mr. Obama has not said how small a firm would have to be in order to qualify for the exemption, nor has he quantified the size of the penalty.
Mr. Obama has, however, said he would require parents to insure their children. He has not specified a penalty for those who do not. Though Mr. McCain asserted that “every parent I know would acquire health insurance for their children if they could,” studies have shown that more than 1 million low-income children who are eligible for inexpensive government insurance plans remain uninsured.
Mr. Obama was correct that Mr. McCain voted against increasing funding for one of those plans, the Children’s Health Insurance Program. He did so twice last year.
Mr. Obama, meanwhile, charged that Mr. McCain would “strip away the ability of states to provide some of the regulations on insurance companies to make sure you’re not excluded for preexisting conditions or your mammograms are covered or your maternity is covered.”
Mr. McCain has not specifically proposed deregulating the insurance industry by removing coverage requirements. But some economists argue that could be the effect of his plan to allow the sale of insurance policies across state lines. Because some states require insurers to cover more conditions and procedures than others, Mr. Obama contends that insurers would flock to states that impose the least burdensome regulations.
Mr. Obama also repeated his oft-stated assertion that his plan will save the average family $2,500 a year in premium costs. Many health economists question whether he can save that kind of money in a single term, as Mr. Obama promises.
Mr. McCain said that his plan – which would end the exclusion of employer-sponsored health benefits from income taxes and instead give families a $5,000 tax credit – would leave 95 percent of Americans with a net gain. That, too, is in dispute, as the McCain campaign has based its calculation on the average cost of a family health insurance policy. Furthermore, because Mr. McCain’s tax credits would likely not keep up with inflation, many economists believe that more and more consumers will suffer a net loss as time passes.
Getting Bin Laden
| 10:26 p.m. When Senator Obama was asked whether he would violate Pakistan’s sovereignty and go over the Pakistan border to pursue the militants who are attacking American forces in Afghanistan he narrowed the question — saying he would go into Pakistan if he had information about the whereabouts of Osama bin Laden. That, of course, has been the Bush administration’s policy since just days after the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks.
The question he sidestepped is more difficult: Whether he would go after the forces attacking Americans — a mix of Taliban, of tribal militants and distant associates of Al Qaeda. That is a far more difficult question than going after Al Qaeda. In July, President Bush reversed himself on this question and issued classified orders permitting American special forces to do just that. Neither Senator Obama nor Senator McCain referred to that decision, or said whether they would continue the policy Mr. Bush adopted over the summer.
Senator McCain talked about cooperating with the Pakistanis, suggesting that it was their responsibility to take action in the Federally Administered Tribal Areas and North and South Waziristan, the safe haven for the militants. But he also, on two occasions, referred to his hero Teddy Roosevelt, citing his famous statement about the need to “speak softly and carry a big stick” — Roosevelt actually said “walk softly and carry a big stick.”
Mr. McCain chastised Senator Obama for speaking too loudly, and the Arizona senator seemed to suggest that if he goes into Pakistan, he will do it quietly and covertly. In the end he never quite said whether he would respect Pakistan’s sovereignty.
Raising Taxes Again the candidates subjected taxes to multiple exaggerations and misstatements. Mr. Obama said he is proposing a tax cut for “95 percent of Americans.” But the Tax Policy Center, a non-partisan organization, did some sophisticated modeling of both candidates’ tax proposals and concluded actually only 81 percent of tax filers would get a tax cut under Mr. Obama’s plan. Some would see their taxes go unchanged. Many at the upper end of the income scale would see tax increases.
As for Mr. McCain, he repeated again his misleading attack that “Senator Obama has voted 94 times to either increase your taxes or against tax cuts.” This comes from a tally that has been pushed by both the campaign and the Republican National Committee, but Factcheck.org, a non-partisan group, conducted an analysis and found most of the votes were actually on non-binding budget measures or motions. Others would have actually increased taxes but only on those making more than $1 million a year. A handful would have actually lowered taxes for most but increased them for some corporations or wealthy individuals.
Humanitarian Intervention On the subject of humanitarian intervention to prevent genocide, Mr. Obama made some assertions about policy and history that at best are fuzzy and which many historians would probably question.
“If we could have intervened effectively in the Holocaust, who among us would say that we had a moral obligation not to go in?” he asked. “If we could have stopped Rwanda, surely if we had the ability that would be something that we would have to strongly consider and act.”
But according to Bill Clinton, who was president at the time of the Rwanda genocide, the question was not one of “ability” so much as political will. In two visits to Rwanda, the last in 2005, he has apologized for not having taken steps to use American power to prevent the slaughter that took place in 1994, killing hundreds of thousands of people in a three month period.
“I was the government of the United States in 1994″ and did not act, Mr. Clinton said during a visit to a museum in the Rwandan capital in July 2005. “”I express regret for my personal failure,” he added.
The reasons for that failure are complicated and still being debated. But one factor was clearly a desire to avoid a repetition of what had happened in nearby Somalia in 1993, where a humanitarian intervention by American troops led to the political disaster depicted in the film “Black Hawk Down.”
Last December, campaigning for his wife in Iowa, Mr. Clinton went so far as to say that she had urged him to use American power to prevent the Rwandan genocide. Had he heeded her advice, he acknowledged, history might have changed.
“I believe that if I had moved, we might have saved at least a third of those lives,” he said. “I think she clearly would have done that.”
On the Holocaust, the historical record is even more complicated. But in July 1943, Roosevelt was told of the Nazis’ systematic mass slaughter of Jews by Jan Karski, a courier for the Polish underground who had been smuggled into both the Warsaw Ghetto and a concentration camp in order to document what was going on.
Some historians and Jewish scholars argue that the United States and Great Britain could in fact have “intervened effectively” to stop or at least slow down the Holocaust by bombing rail and other links and supporting efforts to resettle refugees. But that would have required diverting resources, they argue, that both countries felt were better employed in the war effort.
Small Businesses and Taxes
| 10:19 p.m. Mr. McCain said, “Senator Obama’s secret that you don’t know is that his tax increases will increase taxes on 50 percent of small business revenue. Small businesses across America will have to cut jobs and will have their taxes increase and won’t be able to hire because of Senator Obama’s tax policies.”
The Republican nominee’s claim is based on Mr. Obama’s proposal to let the 2001 and 2003 Bush tax cuts expire on schedule after 2010 for couples with more than $250,000 income a year or individuals making more than $200,000. Many small businesses pay income taxes as individuals rather than as corporations. But as Mr. Obama stated, a small percentage of small business owners have taxable income above the cut-off.
Factcheck.org cited a projection by the nonpartisan Tax Policy Center, a joint project of the Brookings Institution and Urban Institute think tanks, that 663,608 taxpayers with business income would fall into the top two tax brackets in 2009. Not all of these, however, would be considered “small business owners;” some are individuals who get income from real-estate partnerships or other investment arrangements.
| 10:14 p.m. Senator John McCain said of global warming, “The best way of fixing it? Nuclear power.”
He’s right that, once built, a nuclear power plant emits no carbon dioxide, the main human-generated greenhouse gas linked to recent warming of the global climate.
But many energy experts have run the numbers on just how many nuclear power plants would have to be constructed between now and 2050 just to avert even a tenth or so of the projected increase in emissions of carbon dioxide coming from expanding use of coal in that span.
According to analysis by Professors Stephen Pacala and Robert Socolow of Princeton University, the world, in the end, would need to build about 880 nuclear plants – twice the number operating worldwide today – by 2050 just to avoid that small fraction of projected emissions.
So nuclear power, even in a best case, is only likely to be a small fraction of the long-term effort to curb emissions of carbon dioxide.
Debt and Deficits
| 10:10 p.m. Senator Obama said: “When George Bush came into office, we had surpluses. And now we have a half-a-trillion-dollar deficit annually. When George Bush came into office, our debt, national debt, was around 5 trillion. It’s now over $10 trillion. We’ve almost doubled it.”
The figures are not precisely right, but the point is valid.
When President Bush took office, the federal budget had a surplus ($128 billion in 2001). The latest estimate from the Congressional Budget Office is that there was a $438 billion deficit in the fiscal year that ended last month.
In speaking of the debt, Senator Obama was probably referring to the federal debt limit, set by Congress. Economists prefer to use a different measure - - federal debt held by the public, which rose from $3.3 trillion in 2001 to more than $5.4 trillion this year, and is expected to rise higher because of the current economic slump and recent federal efforts to bail out financial institutions.
On a related issue, Senator Obama was roughly correct in saying that earmarks account for $18 billion of the budget. That is less than 1 percent of federal spending, which exceeded $2.7 trillion in the fiscal year just ended. But Mr. McCain and other Republicans contend that earmarks are a kind of “gateway drug” that leads to excessive spending.
| 10 p.m. As in the last debate, Mr. McCain continued to hit Mr. Obama on the issue of earmarks. “He voted for nearly $1 billion in pork barrel earmark projects,” Mr. McCain said. “Including, by the way, $3 million for an overhead projector at a planetarium in Chicago, Illinois.”
Mr. McCain was referring to an earmark in 2007 that Mr. Obama disclosed in a news release.
Among the requested earmarks Mr. Obama listed for fiscal year 2008: “Adler Planetarium, to support replacement of its projector and related equipment, $3,000,000.”
“One of its most popular attractions and teaching tools at the Adler Planetarium is the Sky Theater,” the statement continued. “The projection equipment in this theater is 40 years old, and is no longer supported with parts or service by the manufacturer. It has begun to fail, leaving the theater dark and groups of school students and other interested museum-goers without this very valuable and exciting learning experience.”
The Adler, founded in 1930, was the first planetarium in the Western hemisphere. On its Web site, it is described as “a recognized leader in science education, with a focus on inspiring young people, particularly women and minorities, to pursue careers in science.”
According to an article in The Chicago Tribune in October, it would only be the second time the projector is replaced since the Adler opened in 1930.
“The Zeiss optical projector in Adler Planetarium and Astronomy Museum’s Sky Theater has been showing the night sky and celestial objects on the theater dome’s inner surface since 1970,” the article said.
The project has already received a $500,000 grant from the Polk Bros. foundation.
| 9:58 p.m. Senator Obama said, “Our goal should be, in 10 years’ time, we are free of dependence on Middle Eastern oil, and we can do it.” And Senator McCain said that America should drill offshore because that would lower the price of oil. “It will reduce the price of a barrel of oil, because when people know there’s a greater supply, then the cost of that will go down,” he said.
But both statements ignore the fact that oil is traded in a global market. If the United States imports no Middle Eastern oil but supply form that region is interrupted, the global shortage will affect the United States as well, according to oil market experts. And the oil that could be produced from offshore areas would have an effect, but would be a small increment to the global market and thus its price impact would be small.
Fannie and Freddie
| 9:35 p.m. On the role of Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac in starting the crisis that has engulfed the American economy, Mr. McCain said “with the encouragement of Senator Obama and his cronies and friends,” Congress failed to pass legislation that could have reined in lending abuses at the two government-chartered companies. He also said that “some of us stood up two years ago” to try to stop the irregularities.
Economists say that the causes of the crisis are many and are certainly not limited to loan practices at Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac. But even beyond that, Mr. McCain’s statements oversimplify the situation in Congress and mischaracterize the role played by Mr. Obama, who had just entered the Senate.
Mr. McCain was referring to the Federal Housing Enterprise Regulatory Reform Act, which Democrats did oppose when it was introduced in 2005. But the White House also opposed the legislation, arguing that “it fails to include key elements that are essential to protect the safety and soundness of the housing finance system and the broader financial system at large” and complaining that it would set up a system that “is considerably weaker than that which governs other large, complex financial institutions.”
At the time, Republicans controlled the Senate, not Democrats. At least in part because of the Bush Administration’s complaints that the bill was too weak, it never came to a vote in the Senate. As a result, Mr. Obama never had an opportunity to vote against the proposal. So it is an exaggeration to shift blame for the bill’s failure exclusively to him and other Democrats.
Mr. McCain also overstated his own role in efforts to rein in the two federally-chartered companies. The bill was introduced in January 2005 by Senator Chuck Hagel of Nebraska and two co-sponsors. Mr. McCain signed on May 2006, after a fusillade of criticism directed at the two entities in an official report, and was not one of its original sponsors.
Mr. McCain was correct, however, in saying that Mr. Obama “was the second highest recipient of Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac money in history.” According to calculations by the Center for Responsive Politics, a monitoring group, Mr. Obama has received $126,349 in campaign contributions from political action committees and individuals associated with the two companies, second only to Senator Christopher Dodd.
But Mr. McCain neglected to say that some of his closest advisers and campaign staff members have also benefited from the largesse of Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac. Over a five year period, for example, campaign manager Rick Davis was paid nearly $2 million by the mortgage giants to help defend them against stricter regulations.
| 9:15 p.m.Senator John McCain suggested that Senator Barack Obama had the “most liberal big spending record in the United States Senate.” A moment later, Mr. McCain said that his Democratic rival has proposed “$860 billion in new spending.”
This is the same assertion that Mr. McCain has been making in recent weeks on the campaign trail. Where does he get that figure? The McCain campaign said it is based on adding up all of the programs that Mr. Obama has proposed, more than 40 initiatives throughout the course of the campaign.
But it does not factor in any of the money that an Obama administration would save through cutbacks in other programs.
Late last month, the nonpartisan Committee for a Responsible Federal Budget has called Mr. McCain’s $860 billion assertion “a misleading figure taken out of context.”
Senator McCain suggested that voters “go to some of these organizations that are the watchdogs of what we do, like the Citizens Against Government Waste or the National Taxpayers Union” and look at Senator Obama’s record. “And you know what you’ll find? This is the most liberal, big-spending record in the United States Senate.”
It’s certainly true that Mr. Obama is not rated favorably by either group, but neither one ranks him as its “most liberal” spender in the Senate. The National Taxpayers Union gave Mr. Obama an “F” grade for each of his first three years in the Senate, but also ranked four senators lower than him in 2005, 31 lower than him in 2006 and 12 lower than him in 2007.
Citizens Against Government Waste concluded that Mr. Obama voted right just 10 percent of the time in 2007 and 18 percent of the time during his entire Senate career. But it concluded that there were 47 senators who were even worse by its standards last year (including Mr. McCain’s close friend and ally, Joseph I. Lieberman of Connecticut) and 30 who have been worse over their Senate careers plus four others tied with Mr. Obama.