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Double-Checking Candidates' Claims In Last Debate

STEVE INSKEEP, Host:

It's Morning Edition from NPR News. I'm Steve Inskeep.

RENEE MONTAGNE, Host:

And I'm Renee Montagne. Senators Barack Obama and John McCain debated the economy and domestic policy last night at Hofstra University on Long Island, New York. This morning, we're checking to see how closely the candidates stuck to the facts, and we've assembled a team of NPR reporters to help. There were two candidates at the debate as always, but there was another person who practically crashed the party. He's Joe the Plumber. Senator McCain actually invited him in, but he pretty much stayed the entire hour and a half. Here's Senator McCain.

J: Joe wants to buy the business that's he has been in for all these years, worked 10, 12 hours a day. And he wanted to buy the business. But he looked at your tax plan, and he saw that he was going to pay much higher taxes. You were going to put him in a higher tax bracket, which was going to increase his taxes, which was going to cause him not to able to employ people.

MONTAGNE: You, of course, being Barack Obama. We're joined by Chris Arnold who covers the economy. And Chris, what do we know about Joe the Plumber?

CHRIS ARNOLD: Joe the Plumber is actually the Joe Wurzelbacher. He is from Ohio, and he confronted Obama when he was campaigning in Ohio. And he thinks his taxes would go up under Obama's plan. He's not happy about this and says that Obama's tax policy sounds socialist to him. So he's very upset.

MONTAGNE: OK, so in the debate, Joe the Plumber became a representative of the average small-business man. And would, in that case, Obama actually raise his taxes?

ARNOLD: If he's a plumber who after he's paid all his expenses, paid for his pipes and welding supplies, if he's really making more than $250,000 a year, then yes, under Obama's plan, his taxes would go up. But again that implication that that represents middle-income people is misleading. Middle-income Americans would get three times the income tax break under Obama that they would get under McCain.

MONTAGNE: Chris Arnold, thanks very much.

ARNOLD: Thanks, Renee.

MONTAGNE: And congressional correspondent David Welna joins us now to talk about one thing that the candidates talked about, and that was how much their plans that they were proposing generally would cost. And here's Senator Obama.

BARACK OBAMA: I have been a strong proponent of pay as you go. Every dollar that I proposed, I proposed an additional cut, so that it matches.

MONTAGNE: Is that possible?

DAVID WELNA: I actually don't think it's possible in the way that Obama has proposed it. In fact, independent analysts show that more than $280 billion of what Obama has proposed is not paid for under his plans. So there's a gap there that he really didn't explain in the debate.

MONTAGNE: You know, interestingly, the housing crisis didn't loom very large in last night's debate, but both candidates did address it in their larger economic plans. Senator McCain talked about what caused the home mortgage crisis and also a proposal for fixing it.

MCCAIN: The catalyst for this housing crisis was the Fannie and Freddie Mae that caused subprime lending situation that now caused the housing market in America to collapse. I am convinced that until we reverse this continued decline in home ownership and put a floor under it, and so that people have not only the hope and belief they can stay in their homes and realize the American dream, that that value will come up.

MONTAGNE: Now, when Senator McCain blames Freddie and Fannie for starting this meltdown, how does that square with his proposal to buy these troubled mortgages at the value they currently are? In other words to do, in a way, what Freddie and Fannie did.

WELNA: Well, Renee, if you're going to argue that people should be able to stay in their homes and realize the American dream, are you at the same time going to blame these entities for helping that dream become possible? McCain ended up essentially making the same argument that groups pressuring Fannie and Freddie had made, that these families who now have troubled mortgages do deserve to be homeowners even if they don't have the means to do so.

MONTAGNE: David, thanks very much. Congressional correspondent David Welna. And the candidates argued very briefly about one health issue that many people care about. Here's Senator McCain.

MCCAIN: You're running ads right now that say that I oppose federal funding for stem cell research. I don't.

MONTAGNE: Julie Rovner covers health policy. And Julie, does Senator McCain oppose or is he in favor of federal funding for stem cell research?

JULIE ROVNER: Well, he's certainly in favor of federal funding for a non-controversial stem cell research, things like adult stem cell research. What's at issue is funding for embryonic stem cell research. Now, in the past this has been a place where Senator McCain has broken with both President Bush and most of the pro-life community, but in several debates recently with representatives of the McCain campaign, they've refused to say whether as president he would sign those very bills that he has voted for as a member of the Senate.

MONTAGNE: Well, this gets us into another discussion about negative ads. And stay with us, Julie, but we're joined now by David Schaper. He's in Chicago. And David, the most talked about negative ad that John McCain is running is about Barack Obama's association with Bill Ayers. Here's Obama's defense last night.

OBAMA: Forty years ago, when I was eight years old, he engaged in despicable acts with a radical domestic group. I have roundly condemned those acts. Ten years ago, he served and I served on a school reform board that was funded by one of Ronald Reagan's former ambassadors and close friends.

MONTAGNE: David Schaper, who's right?

DAVID SCHAPER: Now, Obama and Ayers did cross paths elsewhere. They're on the board of the Woods Fund, a Chicago charity. They lived in the same neighborhood. And Ayers hosted a little getting to know you coffee at his house for Obama. It wasn't a fundraiser, as some have characterized it, and it did not launch Obama's political career, as McCain alleged.

MONTAGNE: David Schaper talking to us from Chicago. There was more on the overall negative tone of the campaign, and Senator Obama made this charge.

OBAMA: A hundred percent, John, of your ads. A hundred percent of them have been negative.

MCCAIN: It's not true.

OBAMA: It absolutely is true.

MONTAGNE: Peter Overby covers campaign finance issues. And Peter, a hundred percent, I mean, could that be true?

PETER OVERBY: That's actually pretty close if you are talking about one week. The week of September 28, there was a study done that showed that nearly 100 percent of McCain's ads were negative that week. In comparison, Obama's ads that week were 34 percent negative. Now, over the course of the campaign, yes, McCain has run positive ads, and so has Obama. But McCain's ads have tended to be more negative. Now, McCain also made another point that Obama has spent more money on negative ads than anyone else, and he's right.

MONTAGNE: But then of course, Peter, Obama has spent more on ads generally than anybody else has in history.

OVERBY: That's true. Obama is spending more on everything than any other candidate in history because he's taking private money. McCain is taking public money and he has a spending cap. Obama does not.

MONTAGNE: Peter, thanks very much.

OVERBY: Thank you, Renee.

MONTAGNE: After going back and forth about those negative ads, the candidates went back to some of the big issues. And one of them was health care. Here's one claim Barack Obama made.

OBAMA: We estimate we can cut the average family's premium by about $2,500 per year.

MONTAGNE: Julie Rovner, you're still with us. Can Obama do that?

ROVNER: Well, a lot of people have looked at these plans. And I think just about the only people who think he can do that are the people who wrote the plan. Actually Senator Obama's and Senator McCain's plans for cost cutting are pretty similar, and Senator McCain isn't making that same claim.

MONTAGNE: And Julie, one last thing, Joe the Plumber showed up again when Senator McCain said that small employers, like Joe the Plumber hopes to be, would have to provide health care or pay a fine under Senator Obama's health plan. True or false?

ROVNER: False. Unless, Joe the Plumber has a lot of employees, a very successful firm, he would be exempt from Senator Obama's requirements for providing health insurance. And there is no fine, even if Joe the Plumber has a lot of employees and was part of Senator Obama's plan. He would either have to provide health insurance or he would pay into a large pool from which the government would help pay for his employees.

MONTAGNE: Julie, thanks very much, and thanks to all of you. Julie Rovner covers health care. Chris Arnold covers the economy. David Welna covers Congress. David Schaper is NPR's correspondent in Chicago. And Peter Overby covers money and politics. And this is just one part of NPR's fact checking of last night's debate. You can find more facts being checked at npr.org. This is Morning Edition from NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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