Misleading statements from both candidates
Wednesday night's domestic policy debate between President Bush and Sen. John Kerry was replete with misleading statements from both sides.
Covering the uninsured: Kerry said he has a health plan "to cover all Americans." It's true that everyone would have the opportunity to participate in Kerry's plan. But the Kaiser Family Foundation estimates that the plan would add an estimated 26.7 million Americans — not all 45 million who are now uninsured. Kerry dodged a question about how he would pay for his plan, which he estimates would cost $650 billion over 10 years. The conservative American Enterprise Institute estimates the cost at more than twice that amount.
Health care costs: Bush blamed growing health care costs in part on what he called excessive litigation that drives up doctors' malpractice insurance costs and prompts them to order unnecessary tests in self defense. The Congressional Budget Office says that malpractice insurance accounts for less than 2% of health care spending. It also says there is no way to gauge the cost of "defensive medicine," but that evidence it's a major factor in rising costs is "weak or inconclusive." Much larger factors in the growth of medical care spending are advances in medical treatment, higher costs for hospitalization and a growing elderly population.
Bush's meetings with black leaders: Kerry said Bush had never met with the Congressional Black Caucus, an organization of African-American lawmakers. Records show that's not true. Bush met with the caucus within weeks of becoming president and said it would be "the beginning of, hopefully, a lot of meetings." Another meeting did not occur, however, until Feb. 25 of this year, when Bush met with members of the caucus after they paid an impromptu visit to the White House to discuss the crisis in Haiti.
Osama bin Laden: Kerry charged that the Iraq war distracted Bush from pursuing terrorist leader Osama bin Laden. He quoted Bush as saying, "I don't really think about him very much. I'm not that concerned." President Bush denied saying that and accused Kerry of "one of those exaggerations." But at a news conference on March 13, 2002, six months after the 9/11 attacks and with Iraq invasion planning under way, Bush said approximately what Kerry charged: "I truly am not that concerned about him. I know he is on the run. ...I was concerned about him, when he had taken over a country."
What happened to the budget surplus? Kerry charged that Bush "has taken a $5.6 trillion surplus and turned it into deficits as far as the eye can see." In fact, the federal budget never showed a surplus anywhere near that large. It showed annual surpluses for four years, the largest being $236 billion in 2000. In February 2001, just before the last recession, the Congressional Budget Office predicted the country would enjoy 10 years of surpluses totaling $5.6 trillion. That forecast proved overly optimistic. It assumed that the U.S. economy's rapid growth would continue, that there wouldn't be tax cuts and that government spending wouldn't grow any faster than inflation — all wrong assumptions. CBO estimates Bush's tax cuts were responsible for about a third of the federal budget's slide into deficits.
Kerry and tax increases: Bush charged that Kerry has voted to raise taxes 98 times during his 19-year Senate career. Research by the non-partisan Annenberg Public Policy Center of the University of Pennsylvania finds the charge misleading. Of the 98 votes Bush referenced, 43 were for budget bills to set target levels for spending and taxes and did not actually raise or lower taxes. The total also includes a number of procedural votes and multiple votes on the same bill. An example: 16 votes were cast on various versions of President Clinton's 1993 deficit-reduction package, which raised taxes, but only on the top 1% or 2% of earners.
No Child Left Behind: Kerry charged that Bush underfunded the "No Child Left Behind" education reform law by $28 billion. The claim is based on the difference in what Congress authorized under the law and what it actually spent. It is not uncommon for actual spending on a federal program to fall short of what its original architects propose. Bush never promised full funding but said he would "provide the resources necessary" to carry out the law's intent, and the candidates differ on how much that should be. Bush claimed to have increased funding for education 49% since taking office; the actual number is about 43%. What the president didn't mention is that much of the impetus for that increase has come not from the White House but from Congress. From 2002 through 2004, Congress added $6.6 billion to what Bush requested for No Child Left Behind. Two of Bush's four budgets have proposed cuts in the program.
The assault weapons ban: Bush said he favored extending the ban on assault weapons that expired last month but had not pushed Congress to do so because he had been told the bill couldn't pass. "Republicans and Democrats were against the assault weapon ban, people of both parties," Bush said. In fact, most Republicans opposed extending the ban; most Democrats supported it. The last time it came up for a vote, on March 2 in the Senate, it was passed, 52-47. Only 6 Democrats opposed it, along with 41 Republicans. The tally shows that most of the opposition came from Bush's own party.
Kerry's "liberalism": Bush charged that Kerry is an extreme liberal, saying, "there's a mainstream in American politics, and you sit on the far-left bank." He said Kerry is more liberal than his Massachusetts Senate colleague, Edward Kennedy. It was a variation on the president's frequent charge that Kerry is the Senate's most liberal member, which he bases on a rating by the magazine National Journal. The magazine found Kerry to be the most liberal member of the Senate for the year 2003 only — a period when he missed many votes because of his presidential campaign, thereby focusing the survey on an artificially small number of Senate actions. Over his career, the magazine rates Kerry the Senate's 11th most liberal member; Kennedy ranks 5th.
Reporting by Julie Appleby, Peronet Despeignes, Jim Drinkard, Barbara Hagenbaugh, Mimi Hall, Steven Komarow, Bill Nichols, Greg Toppo, Traci Watson, Elizabeth Weise and Bill Welch