Fact checking the presidential debates

Obama speaks during the first debate
Democratic presidential nominee Barack Obama (R) and Republican presidential nominee John McCain (L) take part in the first debate of the 2008 elections at the University of Mississippi on in Oxford, MS.

Democrat Barack Obama and Republican John McCain stretched the facts in accusing each other of kowtowing to the oil industry and sprinkled other dubious assertions across the landscape of public policy in their first presidential debate.

McCain's plan to cut the corporate tax rate to 25 percent from 35 percent across the board so as to spur job creation was boiled down by Obama into a $4 billion tax break for Big Oil, as if no other companies or workers would benefit.

McCain similarly cut corners with context when he accused Obama of voting for huge subsidies for the oil industry. Obama voted to strip away those subsidies and, when that failed, backed broad energy legislation that contained them.

So it went during 90 minutes of debate, a reality warp at times.

Grow the Future of Public Media

MPR News is supported by Members. Gifts from individuals power everything you find here. Make a gift of any amount today to become a Member!

Some examples:

OBAMA: "Sen. McCain mentioned Henry Kissinger, who is one of his advisers, who along with five recent secretaries of state just said we should meet with Iran - guess what? - without preconditions."

MCCAIN: "Dr. Kissinger did not say that he would approve face-to-face meetings between the president of the United States and (Iranian President Mahmoud) Ahmadinejad. He did not say that. He said there could be secretary-level and lower-level meetings. I've always encouraged that."

THE FACTS: Obama was right that Kissinger called for meetings without preconditions. McCain was right that Kissinger did not call for such meetings to be between the two presidents.

In a foreign policy forum Saturday, Kissinger said: "I am in favor of negotiating with Iran." He went on to say, "I actually have preferred doing it at the secretary of state level" and the U.S. should go into the talks with "a clear understanding of what is it we're trying to prevent. What is it going to do if we can't achieve what we're talking about? But I do not believe that we can make conditions for the opening of negotiations. We ought, however, to be very clear about the content of negotiations and work it out with other countries and with our own government."


OBAMA: "John, you want to give oil companies another $4 billion" in tax breaks.

THE FACTS: The $4 billion in tax breaks for the oil companies is simply part of McCain's overall corporate tax reduction plan and does not represent an additional tax benefit. In other words, the corporate tax reduction applies to all corporations, oil companies included. Both Obama and McCain have proposed eliminating oil and gas tax loopholes.


MCCAIN: Said the country has lost the sense of accountability exemplified by Allied commander Dwight Eisenhower on the eve of D-Day. He said Eisenhower wrote one letter to be released in the event of victory, which praised the troops, "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 FACTS: Eisenhower prepared to take responsibility in the note to be delivered in the event of D-Day disaster but did not offer to resign.

The full text:

"Our landings in the Cherbourg-Le Havre area have failed to gain a satisfactory foothold and I have withdrawn the troops. My decision to attack at this time and place was based on the best information available. The troops, the air and the navy did all that bravery and devotion to duty could do. If any blame or fault attaches to the attempt, it is mine alone."


OBAMA: Said he would make sure that the health care system "allows everyone to have basic coverage."

THE FACTS: If that sounds like universal health coverage, it's not. Obama picked his words carefully - stopping short of claiming outright that his plan provides health care for all. He promises to make health insurance affordable but would only require that children, not adults, have coverage. Estimates of how many would remain without insurance vary. Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton said during the primaries that Obama's plan would leave 15 million people uninsured.


MCCAIN: "We had an energy bill before the United States Senate. It was festooned with Christmas tree ornaments. It had all kinds of breaks for the oil companies, I mean, billions of dollars worth. I voted against it; Sen. Obama voted for it."

THE FACTS: Obama did vote for a 2005 energy bill supported by President Bush that included billions in subsidies for oil and natural gas production. McCain opposed the bill on grounds it included unnecessary tax breaks for the oil industry. Obama voted to strip the legislation of the oil and gas industry tax breaks. When that failed, he voted for the overall measure. Obama has said he supported the legislation because it provided money for renewable energy.


OBAMA: "We're also going to have to look at, how is it that we shredded so many regulations? We did not set up a 21st-century regulatory framework to deal with these problems. And that in part has to do with an economic philosophy that says that regulation is always bad."

THE FACTS: Some of the abuses that occurred stemmed from the 1999 repeal of a Depression-era law that separated banks from brokerages. In legislation supported by former President Clinton and Robert Rubin, now a top Obama adviser and treasury secretary in the Clinton administration, this separation was ended - allowing banks and insurance companies to sell securities.

But while regular banks were strictly regulated by the government, Wall Street banks and other non-bank institutions - many of the same institutions whose abuses led to the current crisis - were allowed to operate with less regulation.


MCCAIN: McCain said Obama voted to cut off money for the troops in Iraq.

THE FACTS: Despite opposing the war, Obama has, with one exception, voted for Iraq troop financing. In 2007, he voted against a troop funding bill because it did not contain language calling for a troop withdrawal. The Illinois senator backed another bill that had such language - and money for the troops.


MCCAIN: In a discussion of how the government could shrink spending, he said: "Look, we are sending $700 billion a year overseas to countries that don't like us very much."

THE FACTS: The comment echoes one he made in his acceptance speech at the Republican National Convention earlier this month, when he was talking about money the U.S. spends on foreign oil. FactCheck.org says the U.S. this year is on track to spend $536 billion on imported oil - not $700 billion - and nearly one-third of that comes from friendly nations: Canada, Mexico and Britain.


MCCAIN: "Sen. Obama twice said in debates he would sit down with Ahmadinejad, (Venezuelan President Hugo) Chavez and (Cuban President) Raul Castro without precondition."

OBAMA: "Now, understand what this means, 'without preconditions.' It doesn't mean that you invite them over for tea one day. ... There's a difference between preconditions and preparation. Of course we've got to do preparations, starting with low-level diplomatic talks, and it may not work, because Iran is a rogue regime."

THE FACTS: Obama was asked in a July 2007 debate whether he would be willing to meet "without precondition" with the leaders of Iran, Syria, Cuba and other countries the U.S. regards as rogue nations. Obama replied, "I would," adding that it was ridiculous to think that America is punishing such nations by refusing to speak with them. Time and again since then he has been forced to defend the statement, both by Democrats during the primaries and by Republicans.

Obama has tried to draw a distinction between a precondition and preparation. He has argued that he wouldn't demand that a foreign leader give in on some fundamental issue before the two sides met to discuss the dispute. But he has said "preparations" would require diplomatic contacts to gauge whether a formal meeting would be useful and to lay the groundwork for those talks.


MCCAIN: "You know, we spent $3 million to study the DNA of bears in Montana. I don't know if that was a criminal issue or a paternal issue, but the fact is that it was $3 million of our taxpayers' money. And it has got to be brought under control."

THE FACTS: A study regularly mocked by McCain as pork barrel spending could help ease restrictions on logging, development and even the oil and gas drilling that McCain wants to expand. Montana ranchers, farmers and Republican leaders pushed for the study as a step toward taking the grizzly bear off the endangered species list. Former Montana Gov. Judy Martz, a Republican and a McCain supporter, said the bear had been used to block the use of the state's abundant natural resources, when all along the animal was plentiful. "If it is going to remove it from the list, it is money well spent," Martz said.