Democratic Debate Fact Check: What Did They Talk About, and What Was True?

The second round of 2020 Democratic presidential primary debates kicked off on Tuesday in Detroit, with 10 candidates onstage for the first of two back-to-back nights. The other 10 candidates who qualified for the debates will appear Wednesday on the same stage.

Our reporters followed all of the exchanges, fact-checking the candidates and providing context and explanation for the policy debates.

What the facts are

What was said:

Beto O’Rourke: “I listen to scientists on this, and they are very clear. We don’t have more than 10 years to get this right.”

Mayor Pete Buttigieg: “Science tells us we have 12 years before we reach the horizon of catastrophe when it comes to our climate.”

Both statements are misleading. Both Mr. O’Rourke, a former member of Congress from Texas, and Mr. Buttigieg are referring to a recent Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change report that finds countries have about a dozen years to keep the rise in global average temperatures to 1.5 degrees Celsius above preindustrial levels. At that point, the planet will face severe effects, including worsened droughts, floods and heat waves. And because most scenarios for curbing warming require halving worldwide emissions by 2030, that means countries must take serious action now. But to claim that there are 12 or just 10 years until the point of no return goes beyond what the report itself says.

What the facts are

What Mr. Sanders said:

“Back in 1988, coming from a state that had no gun control, I called for the ban of the sale and distribution of assault weapons. I lost that election.”

This is misleading. Mr. Sanders suggested he had a long history of fighting the National Rifle Association, the gun industry’s powerful lobbying association.

Mr. Sanders noted that he has a “D-minus voting record from the N.R.A., and as president, I suspect it will be an F record,” citing his failed bid for the House in 1988 as evidence. He vowed that as president, he would “do everything I can” to take on the N.R.A.

But in portraying himself as a longtime foe of the gun industry, Mr. Sanders left out parts of his record as a lawmaker defending gun rights in a rural hunting state. In 1993, Mr. Sanders, then a representative, voted against the Brady Bill, which mandated background checks and imposed a five-day waiting period for gun buyers.

In 2005, while still in the House, Mr. Sanders voted in favor of a measure to shield gun manufacturers and dealers from lawsuits arising from the criminal use of their products. In 2012, after a mass shooting in Aurora, Colo., he suggested the federal government should steer clear of gun control, saying, “In my view, decisions about gun control should be made as close to home as possible — at the state level.” But Mr. Sanders voted in favor of the 1994 assault weapons ban, which passed as part of a broad package of crime legislation.

What they’re talking about

What John Hickenlooper said:

“I think the guarantee for a public job for everyone who wants one is a classic part of the problem. It’s a distraction.”

The candidates agreed on the urgency of addressing climate change but debated whether the Green New Deal provided the right solution. At this point, the Green New Deal is a nonbinding congressional resolution that outlines an ambitious plan for tackling climate change. It also calls for a federal jobs guarantee, adequate family and medical leave, paid vacations and retirement security for every American, as well as for significant reductions in planet-warming emissions by 2030. Mr. Hickenlooper, the former governor of Colorado who has been critical of the plan, called the job guarantee “a distraction.” Others who have embraced it, like Senator Elizabeth Warren, said that criticism ignores an opportunity to create jobs in the renewable energy markets.

what they’re talking about

What Ms. Williamson said:

“What happened in Flint would not have happened in Grosse Pointe. This is part of the dark underbelly of American society.”

If Flint, Mich., were rich, would the government have responded differently to the crisis of lead-polluted water? That’s something The New York Times has explored in depth. One thing is clear: The crisis was a failure of government at all levels, from the state-appointed emergency manager who switched the city’s drinking water source from Detroit’s municipal water system to the Flint River in an effort to save money to the health agencies that assured residents the water was safe even as people complained that it smelled bad, tasted funny and was discolored.

Two years later, a task force appointed by the governor at the time found race and poverty also played a role. “Flint residents, who are majority black or African-American and among the most impoverished of any metropolitan area in the United States, did not enjoy the same degree of protection from environmental and health hazards as that provided to other communities,” the report said.

what the facts are

What Mr. Hickenlooper said:

“Last year, Democrats flipped 40 Republican seats in the House, and not one of those 40 Democrats supported the policies of our front-runners at center stage.”

This is exaggerated. Mr. Hickenlooper was referring to Medicare for All, the progressive plan for universal health care. Many of the seats Democrats flipped in taking control of the House in 2018 were in swing districts, or districts carried by President Trump; most of the freshmen who won those seats are centrists and do not support “Medicare for all.” But at least two of them — Representatives Katie Porter and Katie Hill of California — do, and they campaigned on it. Both signed onto Medicare for All legislation in the House.

In 2017, Ms. Porter said on Twitter: “I believe in universal coverage, and I support Medicare for All.”

Ms. Hill’s campaign posted a video on Facebook explaining her reasoning for backing Medicare for all, describing how she and her husband, Kenny, faced $200,000 in medical expenses early in their marriage. “Ensuring progress on health care is one of the top priorities for me as the issue hits extremely close to home, and we have to do whatever it takes to get us to Medicare for all as soon as possible.”

What they’re talking about

What was said:

Mr. Sanders: “Medicare for all is comprehensive and covers all health care needs for senior citizens.”

Representative Tim Ryan: “You don’t know that, Bernie.”

Mr. Sanders: “I do know it. I wrote the damn bill.”

Mr. Sanders and Ms. Warren argued that Medicare for all was necessary, while their opponents pushed back and argued that Americans want a choice of plans and therefore preferred a public option, the choice of a Medicare-like plan in addition to private insurance. John Delaney invoked his father, who liked his union plan and wanted to keep it.

The Times surveyed the candidates about their positions on health care. Dive into their policies in the following stories.

What they’re talking about

What MS. Williamson said:

“If you did the math today, it would be trillions of dollars, and I believe that anything less than a hundred billion dollars is an insult, and I believe that $200 to $500 billion is politically feasible.”

Ms. Williamson separated herself from the pack by arguing for reparations in the form of cash payments to African-Americans. She said she would set aside as much as $500 billion for such payments, a figure she justified by citing the unfulfilled Civil War-era promise of “40 acres and a mule” to freed slaves.

But other Democrats were more cautious. Mr. O’Rourke called for a new voting rights act and legislation to address health and educational disparities, and said he would sign onto a House bill that would create a commission to study the issue of reparations. Mr. Sanders, who opposes cash payments, said he would focus on “rebuilding distressed communities,” including tripling federal aid to schools in poor neighborhoods. Ms. Warren said that as part of her plan to “close the black-white wealth gap in America,” she would allocate $50 billion to historically black colleges and universities.

What the facts are

What Mr. Sanders said:

“Detroit was nearly destroyed because of awful trade policy which allowed corporations to throw workers in this community out on the streets as they moved to low wage countries.”

This is exaggerated. Nafta, which went in effect in 1994, is often blamed for the loss of American manufacturing jobs in the Midwest, but Detroit’s struggles started well before that as global competition increased. Auto jobs started scattering during the energy crisis of the 1970s and the economic downturn of the 1980s. Moreover, jobs in Detroit were also lost to competition in the union-averse South, where many carmakers seeking cheaper labor relocated operations.

What the facts are

What Ms. Warren said:

“Anyone who thinks that these trade deals are mostly about tariffs just doesn’t understand what’s going on. Look at the Nafta 2.0. What’s the central feature? It’s to help pharmaceutical companies get longer periods of exclusivity.”

This is mostly true. While the drug provisions are not the core element of the United States-Mexico-Canada-Agreement (Nafta 2.0), it is a controversial provision that continues to hold up ratification of the trade pact. As The Times reported in March, the agreement gives biologic drugmakers 10 years of protections against other products that would rely on the data they used to win approval. That 10-year provision would raise the timeline in Canada, where the industry currently has eight years of protection, and in Mexico, where it technically has none. It would not change current policy in the United States, where the standard is already 12 years.

What they’re talking about

What Mr. Sanders said:

“I took 15 people with diabetes from Detroit a few miles into Canada and we bought insulin for one-tenth the price being charged by the crooks who run the pharmaceutical industry in America today.”

Sydney Ember, a reporter for The Times, wrote about Mr. Sanders’s trip this week. In the article, she quoted a woman who said she could buy a vial of insulin in Canada for about one-tenth of the $340 she must pay in the United States. The stark price differences between the two countries comes from comparing the list prices of insulin, or what someone would pay without any insurance. Those types of comparisons often overlook the fact that most Americans have health insurance, which covers part of the cost. Even so, as insurance plans have become less generous in recent years, many consumers have been increasingly exposed to rising prices through high deductibles and other out-of-pocket requirements.

What the facts are

What Mr. Buttigieg said:

“Nominate me and we will have a different conversation with American voters about why the president of the United States thinks you’re a sucker when the problem in your life is your paycheck is not going up nearly as fast as the cost of housing.”

This is true. A March study from the National Association of Realtors found that in the past six years, from 2012 to 2018, median home prices across the United States increased by 47 percent while monthly wages rose 16 percent.


What Mr. Hickenlooper said:

“I learned the small-business lessons of how to provide service and team work and became a top mayor, and as governor of Colorado, created the No. 1 economy in the country.”

This is false. According to the latest federal government data, at the end of Mr. Hickenlooper’s last term as governor, in 2018, Colorado’s economy ranked seventh in the country when measured by real gross domestic product growth. Measured on a per person basis, the state’s real G.D.P. growth was ranked 15th.

Fact checks and explainers by Alan Rappeport, Sheryl Gay Stolberg, Reed Abelson, Lisa Friedman and Katie Thomas.

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