Fact Checker: The Iowa debate

Aug 12, 2011

In what will be the first installment of a weekly chat series, Glenn Kessler, The Washington Post's Fact Checker, will discusses just how factual the Iowa debate participants were.

Today's post: Fact checking the GOP debate in Iowa

Note to readers: Unlike many of our other chat series, Fact Checker will not take place at the same day and time every week. The time of these chats will be determined by what Glenn is working on and current events. Chats in this series will be designated by the words "Fact Checker" in the chat title. Thank you.

Thanks for joining this chat. I see lots of questions and I am ready to start, so let's begin!

You have an important job. I'm glad that you and the Washington Post are doing it. However, increasingly it seems that facts don't matter.

As we start the 2012 campaign, can you keep a running list of Pinnochios rather than make it episodic as present? It will give us a fuller picture of those who are serial fabricators as opposed to those who just rhetorically gild the lilly. Thanks.

Thanks for the comment. We are redesigning the page for The Fact Checker and hope to include a feature like that. 

In July, when the column hit six months, we posted a running list of where the various candidates stood in term of Pinocchios, which you can find here

How about fact-checking President Obama?

We do that constantly! Last night was the GOP debate, and there are nine or so Republican candidates, so that keeps us busy. But we try to equally fact check the same number of Democratic statements and Republican statements. Obama by far has been the subject of the most Democratic statements we have checked.

This column, on Obama's rhetoric on the auto bailout, earned him three Pinocchios, for instance. And here we examined a series of statements in one of his news conferences. 

I sent Tim Pawlenty the same report you found. (If you call the healthcare bill "Obamacare" you have to count the provisions as his "plan," right?) We're not actually going to get dinner are we?

I have to say, that was a strange pledge he made. He seemed to really only say it to set up the lawn joke about Romney. But it was rather silly. No matter what you think about Obama's health care law, you certainly can't argue he doesn't have a plan for health care entitlements!

Who, in your opinion, was the most factual in the debate last night? Who was the least?

This is a hard question to answer. They are all politicians, and so they all shaded the truth in some way. I was impressed that Huntsman did not try to explain away his support for civil unions--but then he also completely misled on his statements about Obama's stimulus bill. 

Bachmann continued her pattern of saying really wrong things about the debt ceiling debate, but she was on target about some of the things she said about her former governor, Tim Pawlenty. Ron Paul has his own world view, and some of things he says are really far from factual, though they mesh with the way he perceives the world. 

Sorry if I am not giving a definitive statement. I try to look at each person holistically and examine each statement when it is made. As we found with my six-month accounting, over time it becomes apparent who says the most outlandish things. 

What was the least factual statement you noted from the debate last night?

I think it may be a tie:

“The country’s bankrupt and nobody wanted to admit it. And when you’re bankrupt, you can’t keep spending.”
— Ron Paul

“The Congress gave Barack Obama a blank check for $2.4 trillion. What did the American people get in return? Twenty-one billion [dollars] in illusory cuts. . . . We just heard from Standard & Poor’s, when they dropped our credit rating. What they said is, we don’t have an ability to repay our debt.”
— Bachmann



Newt Gingrich appeared very strong last night, but the media refuses to take him seriously.  He explained his way through Wallace's attacks on his record, and he is clearly a strong debater. How did Gingrich do by Fact-Checker standards in last night's debate?

I did not have time last night to delve deeply in Gingrich's statements, but he was misleading with his answer on Libya. He clearly flip-flopped. (My colleagues at PolitiFact have documented this pretty well.) 

Last night's Iowa debate was nearly devoid of facts, yet the candidates themselves can be said to have "scored points" with their distortions. How do we change our political system such that lying hurts your chances of being elected rather than helps?  

- Bernie Nelson Ham Lake, MN (Yes, that's Rep. Bachmann's district)

This is a very good question. I hope that fact-checking sites like The Fact Checker, PolitiFact and factcheck.org help shed light on such mistatements. Though I find it depressing to hear the same statements made over and over even after someone earned a bunch of Pinocchios!

What is most important is for voters to hold politicians accountable for mistatements. And for voters not to punish politicians who tell them hard truths. 

They have all been slow as syrup?

From producer Jon DeNunzio: This is the first report of slowness I have seen this week, but if more people see it, please let us know via the chat submit button or by sending us an email.

Hi Glenn -- Thanks for taking questions today. As a Minnesotan, I have to admit it was fun to watch Bachmann and Pawlenty go after each other last night, even though there's no way I would support either of them as president. That aside, who of the two was most factually inaccurate in their attacks on the other?

I touched a bit on this last morning. I think they were both pretty factually accurate about each other. The truth sometimes hurts!

A question of semantics: Your fact-checking column awards "Pinnochios" for incorrect facts stated by public officials, so why do you not use the term "lies" when describing such behavior? Are you fearful of being sued, or are you just clevely playing with words to obscure the truth?

This is an excellent question. There's no worry about being sued.

Let's look at the dictionary definition of "lie:" a false statement made with deliberate intent to deceive.

It is the question of intent that I have trouble with. I have to deal with the facts. How can I prove that a politician intended to deceive people? In some cases (see Paul, Ron), some of these statements, no matter how wacky, come from deeply-held beliefs. The best thing I can do is show how, based on the facts, these statements are inaccurate.

Hence we use a scale of Pinocchios. A reader could decide that a four-Pinocchio statement, made repeatedly, is a "lie" under the dictionary definition. But that's a judgement for you to make, not me. 

I love this column! Right now there are nine or more GOP candidates. You can treat them as individuals and it doesn't mean that you have to then rate Obama nine times to be "equal." Thanks!

Yes, that's true. I really don't keep track of it. I look for statements that are interesting, controversial, newsy or might shed light on broader issues. Readers should assume that the GOP for the next few months will get a bit more scrutiny, if only because there are so many candidates. It will be more even when there are only two candidates, mano a mano. 

Your fact-checking and providing context is so important, I wonder why we don't see more of this on TV, especially the cable channels , which, God knows, have the time to fill. It seems cable would rather argue about gossipy things than policy. 

Thanks for the compliment! 

People on TVland, I'm happy to appear on your shows and talk about my columns! :-)

Not a campaign/debate fact-checking question: Is Oscar-winning director Kathryn Bigelow REALLY a threat to national security with her upcoming film on the search for Bin Laden, as Congressman Peter King (R-NY) claims

I know Pete King well, having covered him when I was a reporter for Long Island-based Newsday. I think he was just trying to fill the August news lull.

The ever sharp Ben Smith at Politico noted yesterday that President George W. Bush gave full access--even meeting with the film maker--for a very positive account of the 9/11 attacks. 

I think The Fact Checker is awesome, but I worry that too many Americans don't care enough to see if their politicians are lying to them, or at least less than truthful. It's hard to blame the misleading politicians instead of the people who voted for them. What is your opinion -- are most Americans astute enough to care about the truth? Thanks!

Having interviewed Americans across the country when I was political reporter, I was always struck by how thoughtful people seemed to be about the issues, and yet how misguided they were about the facts. (Many people would complain about their taxes being raised, when I was able to show them that they actually got a tax cut--or that their town got much more in government benefits than they paid out in taxes. ) 

One of the worst things about our system are the awful political ads, fliers and phone calls--by both political parties--that truly twist the truth and seem to make an impact on people's votes. Some countries ban such ads in the final days of a race, and that may not be a bad thing (though probably unconstitutional).

I recently awarded the American people Four Pinocchios for not understanding the basics about the federal budget. The polling is pretty shocking on what people actually know and understand. 

It's a long time until the end of primary season. Aren't you worried about using up the U.S. supply of Pinocchios?

Ha, never! It's endless.....

Love the column and recommending another facet (or separate column/blog).  Is there a need to call attention to platitudes offered by all candidates/parties? Without assigning a truth/untruth metric, might it be worth analzying slogans or "solutions" that often go unchecked.

For example, what does it mean to say: "We are inches away from no longer having a free economy?"  It may not be true or false, but what the heck does it really mean?

I actually said this morning that statement was false. There are many metrics that disprove it, and I give one in my column today

Yet this is a good idea, and worth exploring. Thanks!

Was Mitt Romney's "Corporations are people" statement at the Iowa State Fair a case of being technically accurate but missing the point? What bothers me is that the spin he gave the concept amounts to protecting plutocrats.

If you looked at the full C-span telecast of his appearance, you can see he was set up by a bunch of hecklers. He was actually trying to answer a question about Social Security. His comment was inartful, but he was trying to talk above the crowd and finish making his remarks on Social Security. 

To me, a tempest in a teapot--but I am sure Democrats will use it to paint him as an out of touch rich guy. 

How do you handle statements that are factually accurate on the surface, but are said in a manner that is misleading or even untrue? ("I did not have sex with ..." comes to mind).

I have a category called "true but false" which I have used from time to time, such as Democratic claims that Social security has not added "a penny" to the deficit

What about Mitt Romney's claim that the government now controls 37 percent of the U.S. economy? Sounds a little high, no?

Here's what I wrote about that this morning:

Romney gets his statistics essentially right, according to White House historical records (see table 15.5), but the numbers are missing context. In 1961, there was no Medicare and Social Security only made up about 2 percent of the overall economy (the Gross Domestic Product.) Excluding other payments to individuals and national defense, overall federal spending was also just 2 percent of the economy. (State and local spending was nearly 9 percent of the economy.)

Fast forward to today. Social Security and Medicare are more than 8 percent of the economy. National defense has fallen in half, to 5 percent of the economy. The other functions of the federal government (i.e., excluding payments to individuals and defense) has actually fallen to just 1.6 percent of GDP. So the federal government in many ways is actually smaller.


I thought moderators Chris Wallace and Bret Baier did a very good job with their tough questions, but it is hard to question how factual the anwsers are in the debate format.  I wish there was fact-checking in real time --maybe with a buzer to signify how bad the answer was. One buzz if "enhancing " the truth, two buzzes for misleading out of context, three buzzes for a real whopper. If you get more than three buzzes during debate you get dunked in a water tank or something. That would get some ratings.

Great idea!

I also agree that the questions were unusually good. They really did their homework, but they could have called some of the candidates on some of their answers. I am sure Wallace and Baier knew they were being spun. 

"I think he was just trying to fill the August news lull"

Perhaps you could start a new category where political talk just for the sake of trying to garner media attention is rated by, say, 1 to 4 hot-air balloons?

another good idea!

As you've previously noted, Rep. Ron Paul has a differing worldview compared to those in what we've described as the political mainstream. However, it's worth noting that differences in worldview essentially define every political (or politicized) debate: From the role and size of government to fiscal policy to global warming to youth sports.

How difficult do you find the separation of perspective from raw data, and how much leeway do you tend to give when such distinctions are hard to draw (i.e., Romney's comments about the size of government)?

Yes, I can't fact check political philosophy. On some occasions, I have tried to explore the roots of a political philosophy, however. For instance, take a look at this column on John Boehner's anti-tax stance.

According to a recent Supreme Court decision, for free speech purposes the answer to "Are corporations people?" is yes. Some may disagree, but until they can line up 5+ votes on the other side that is the law of the land.

yes, that's correct. 

"But we try to equally fact check the same number of Democratic statements and Republican statements."

Therein lies the problem. Isn't it a false premise to assume that all politicians are equally averse to telling the truth? Realistically, it's only the right-wingers who seem to believe that mindlessly repeating the same falsehoods -- global warming is a myth, cutting taxes always makes fiscal sense, Obamacare = death panels, etc. -- make them true.

Sorry, I have covered Washington politicians for three decades now, and both sides are equally misleading when it suits their purposes. I frankly have not found much of a difference between Democrats and Republicans when it comes to stretching the truth. 

I hope that doesn't make me sound like a cynic. I am just trying to be realistic. I have frequently joked to friends that if I ever write a memoir about reporting in Washington, it will be titled: "Waiting for People to Lie to Me." 

Thanks for all of the great questions. Sorry I was not able to get to all of them, but I'll be back next week, time to be announced....

In This Chat
Glenn Kessler
Glenn Kessler is an acclaimed diplomatic correspondent for The Washington Post and has been recipient of numerous awards, including two shared Pulitzer Prizes. A member of the Council on Foreign Relations, he has reported from dozens of countries and also has covered the White House and Congress. Kessler is the author of The Confidante: Condoleezza Rice and the Creation of the Bush Legacy. He is a graduate of Brown University and Columbia University's School of International and Public Affairs, and lives in McLean, Virginia.
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