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Fact-checking the second Obama-Romney debate: Who told the biggest whoppers?

The facts and figures flew furiously in Tuesday night’s debate. Not all of them were true

The candidates offered up a wide range of facts, half-truths, and straight-up lies during the second debate on Oct. 16. Photo: Bruce Bennett/Getty Images


Fans of political drama got a real treat in Tuesday night’s town-hall rumble between President Obama and Republican challenger Mitt Romney. The sparks flew as the candidates traded jabs, but the facts and figures did, too. And as in their last face-off, not all those numbers and assertions proved to be true — as the growing chorus of fact-checkers were quick to point out. Here, a survey of some of the biggest disagreements, and which candidate hewed closer to the truth:

Romney: U.S. “oil production is down 14 percent this year on federal land”
The verdict: Half True
Romney’s claim is technically true — in 2011, oil production on federal land was down 13.8 percent — but cherry-picked, says Callum Borchers at The Boston Globe. “Overall, oil production on federal land under Obama is up from 566 million barrels in 2008 to 626 million barrels in 2011, a 10.6 percent increase.” And “the big story of the one-year drop-off in public production is the Deepwater Horizon oil spill of 2010,” says PolitiFact. After the disaster, Obama declared a six-month moratorium on deepwater oil exploration.

Obama: I immediately labeled the deadly attack on U.S. diplomats in Benghazi an “act of terror”
The verdict: Half True
As debate moderator Candy Crowley noted, Obama did use that phrase in his Rose Garden statement hours after the deaths of U.S. Ambassador Chris Stevens and three other U.S. diplomatic personnel. His phrasing was somewhat ambiguous — “No acts of terror will ever shake the resolve of this great nation” — but given the context of the remarks, “it seems a fair conclusion that he was including the attack in the ‘acts of terror,'” says PolitiFact. A week after the attack, Obama also said on David Letterman‘s late-night show that “terrorists and extremists” were responsible for the Libya attack. “But others in his administration repeated for several days its belief that the violence stemmed from protests over an American-made video ridiculing Islam,” says the AP‘s Calvin Woodward. “And Romney is right in arguing that the administration has yet to explain why it took so long [to acknowledge that the protests didn’t happen] or how it came to believe that the attack evolved from an angry demonstration.”

Romney: Obama began his presidency “with an apology tour”
The verdict: Pants On Fire
Romney has used this line before, but “the notion that President Barack Obama started his presidency with an ‘apology tour’ is a persistent and false Republican talking point that we have debunked a number of times,” says PolitiFact. Early in his tenure, Obama did go abroad and “criticized past U.S. actions, such as torture practices at Guantanamo, [but] he did not offer one apology.” To characterize that as an apology tour is ridiculous.

Obama: Romney’s Bain Capital was a “pioneer of outsourcing”
The verdict: Half True
Bain, the company Romney founded and led, bought shares in companies that sent back-office, service, and other types of jobs overseas. But “to call these companies pioneers is a stretch,” says PolitiFact. That term comes from a Washington Post story from June that said: “During the nearly 15 years that Romney was actively involved in running Bain… it owned companies that were pioneers in the practice of shipping work from the United States to overseas call centers and factories making computer components.” It is reasonable to call those companies Romney’s, but “outsourcing was well established by the time Bain began buying shares in the companies” in question.

Romney: It’s “already illegal in this country to have automatic weapons”
The verdict: False
The federal ban on manufacturing some semi-automatic assault weapons that President Clinton signed in 1994 expired in 2004, and wasn’t renewed. There are other regulations and restrictions still in place — the National Firearms Act of 1934, the Gun Control Act of 1968, and the Hughes Amendment in 1986, says Brian Bennett at the Los Angeles Times. But “fully automatic weapons — guns that fire continuously when the trigger is held down — are legal to possess in the United States.”

Obama: Romney called Arizona’s immigration law “a model for the nation”
The verdict: False
Romney did call Arizona’s plan to fight illegal immigration a “model” — as in, “You know, I think you see a model here in Arizona” — in a February GOP primary debate in Phoenix. “But the president took Romney’s words out of context,” says The Boston Globe‘s Borchers. Romney “was speaking specifically about the E-Verify employment screening system” in an older state law — not the controversial “show your papers” part of Arizona’s 2010 law, as Obama suggested.

Romney: As governor, “I went to a number of women’s groups and said, ‘Can you help us find folks,’ and they brought us whole binders full of women”
The verdict: False
It’s worse than just awkward phrasing — this is “not a true story,” says David Bernstein at The Boston Phoenix. In 2002, before Romney was elected, a bipartisan group of women, calling themselves MassGAP, put together a long list of women qualified to fill every cabinet position and lead each state agency, commission, and authority, then presented it to Romney after he was elected. His claim in the debate, “that he asked for such a study, is false.”

Obama: As governor, Romney “stood in front of a coal plant and pointed at it and said, ‘This plant kills'”
The verdict: True
In February 2003, Gov. Romney stood in front of the controversial, coal-burning Salem Harbor Power Station and said, “I will not create jobs or hold jobs that kill people, and that plant — that plant kills people.” He was backed up by Harvard public health and environmental researchers who estimated that Salem Harbor, one of the “Filthy Five” plants, was responsible for 53 deaths, 570 emergency room visits, and tens of thousands of respiratory problems each year. “Where the president was mistaken,” says Caitlin Dickson at The Daily Beast, “was when he said Mitt ‘took great pride’ in closing the plant, since it’s still open.”

Romney: My plan will create 12 million jobs in four years
The verdict: Four Pinocchios
Romney’s repeated claim “that his economic plan would produce 12 million jobs” sure “sounds like a pretty bold statement,” since only two presidents — Bill Clinton and Ronald Reagan — have accomplished that feat, says The Washington Post‘s Glenn Kessler. But his plan — mostly just “a collection of policy assertions, such as reducing debt, overhauling the tax code, fostering free trade, and so forth”— is “even less impressive than it sounds” when you realize that Moody’s Analytics and Macroeconomic Advisors both estimate that the U.S. economy will create at least 12 million new jobs no matter who is in the White House. In other words, says USA Today, “it is accurate that the U.S. economy is expected to gain 12 million jobs in the first term of the next president, but Romney’s job plan is not the reason.”

Obama: “What I’ve also said is, for (those earning) above $250,000, we can go back to the tax rates we had when Bill Clinton was president”
The verdict: False
Obama’s statement is true “only for federal income tax rates,” says FactCheck.org. Obama has proposed raising the income tax ceiling for the wealthiest households to the Clinton-era 39.6 percent, from George W. Bush’s 35 percent. But Obama failed to mention that he “already has enacted new taxes that also will fall on those same taxpayers” — a 0.9 percent Medicare payroll tax surcharge on wages above $250,000 per household and a 3.8 percent tax on investment income for the wealthy. “As a result many, if not most, high-income persons will pay more in federal taxes under Obama’s proposed rates than they did under Clinton.”

Final score: “Both candidates repeated false or misleading claims they have made, and we have rebutted, many times before,” says FactCheck.org. (Read the fact-check of the first Obama-Romney debate here for some of them.) So neither can really claim the high road. But Romney seems to have told the more egregious whoppers — and, in the case of his instantly fact-checked overreach on Benghazi, perhaps the only one that will make any difference.



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