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The Truth Squad Reports On The GOP Debates


This week the Republican presidential hopefuls squared off in the last debate before the Iowa caucuses on January 3rd. There have been 16 debates this election cycle and the assertions have been flying.

We're joined now by Bill Adair, who is editor of the non-partisan fact-checking website PolitiFact.com, to look at some of the noteworthy half-truths, maybe outright falsehoods that may have been uttered.

Bill, thanks for being back with us.

BILL ADAIR: Thanks for having me.

SIMON: And let's begin with Thursday night's debate - and try and fact-check an assertion about checked facts. Michele Bachmann tried to support her attack on Newt Gingrich for his work with the mortgage giant Freddie Mac by citing a source I think you know.


MICHELE BACHMANN: Well, after the debates that we had last week, PolitiFact came out and said that everything that I said was true.

SIMON: We have the advantage of having PolitiFact sitting in front of us. True?

ADAIR: No. This one got a pants on fire, our lowest rating. She was referring to the last debate that was held about a week ago. And, in fact, we gave her two ratings in that debate. We gave her a mostly true on the claim that she made about Newt Gingrich supporting the individual mandate.

But we also gave her a pants on fire for her claim that Mitt Romney's health care program in Massachusetts was socialized medicine. That was a pants on fire. So we ended up giving Congresswoman Bachmann a pants on fire for this new claim.

What really surprised us about this is she has a pretty remarkable record on PolitiFact. We have rated a total of 52 statements that she has made over the course of the last two, three years and of those, 60 percent has been rated either false or pants on fire. That's more than any other presidential candidate, so...

SIMON: Pants on fire means untrue?

ADAIR: That that means not just false, ridiculously false. So it was just a surprise to us. We would not have expected of all the candidates Congresswoman Bachmann to be boasting about her record on PolitiFact.

SIMON: Any other major falsehoods that you noticed at this week's debate?

ADAIR: There was another claim that Newt Gingrich made about having balanced four years of budgets when he was speaker of the House. And we were graded that false. In fact, he was taking credit for two years when he wasn't actually speaker.

SIMON: What about a best of round? This first installment of the campaign season about to come to a close. Your teams uncovered a lot of false claims that have been repeated over more than one debate. For example, this month at the debate in Des Moines, Texas Governor Perry returned to a familiar line of attack against Mitt Romney.

RICK PERRY: I'm listening to you, Mitt, and I'm hearing you say all the right things. But I read your first book, and it said in there that your mandate in Massachusetts, which should be the model for the country - and I know it came out of the reprint of the book, but, you know, I'm just saying, you're for individual mandates, my friend.

MITT ROMNEY: You know what? You've raised that before, Rick. And you're simply wrong.

PERRY: It was true then.


PERRY: And it's true now.

ROMNEY: Rick, I'll tell you what.


ROMNEY: Ten thousand dollar bucks? Ten thousand dollar bet?

PERRY: I'm not in the betting business, but I'll...


SIMON: According to you, Governor Romney might've made $10,000.

ADAIR: Indeed. If you look at the book, it does not say what Perry says it says. Indeed there was a change. This was a book that Romney wrote, and there's a chapter on what he accomplished in Massachusetts. The big theme in that chapter is state choice, that, hey, other states you can do this, too, if you'd like.

And indeed there was one line taken out. There was a line that said you can accomplish the same thing for everyone in the country. But it was in the context of state choice. It was not about the individual mandate. So we rated that mostly false when Perry said that. And it just is not the way he says it.

SIMON: Another frequent target in these debates, obviously, was the incumbent, President Obama. At a debate in September, Mitt Romney repeated a claim that he's put forward a number of times against the president.

ROMNEY: Never before in American history, has its president gone before so many foreign audiences to apologize for so many American misdeeds, both real and imagined. A few minutes into office, he travelled around the globe to apologize for America. He went around the world and apologized for America.

SIMON: And in sequence that was Mr. Romney in the audio version of his book, at a rally announcing his presidential campaign and at a Republican debate in September. How does this repeated assertion square with the facts?

ADAIR: Well, we've rated it pants on fire. And we did that after doing some very thorough research. We read Romney's book and we went to the specific speeches that he was referring to. And Obama wasn't apologizing. What Obama was doing, when you really look at the text, he was explaining what his foreign policy would be like and how it would be different from President Bush's. He never said I'm sorry. There was nothing that could be considered an apology.

And we showed this to experts, including someone who has written a book about apologies. And the conclusion was he was not apologizing. He was laying out his plan for foreign policy. So pants on fire for that.

SIMON: Do candidates pay heed to what you say? What do you think?

ADAIR: In many cases they do. We see examples where people will change what they're saying, where after we call them on a falsehood, they will change the wording in a stock campaign line.

President Obama did this when he was campaigning four years ago, where we caught him saying some things that were inaccurate about the price of oil. And he began saying it correctly. There're many other cases. Some talk show hosts that we catch in falsehoods will apologize on the air about it. So I think it does have an impact.

SIMON: Bill, thanks very much.

ADAIR: Thanks for having me.

SIMON: Bill Adair, editor of the non-partisan fact-checking website Politifact.com.


SIMON: You're listening to WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.