Fact-Checking the South Carolina Democratic Debate

Seven of the candidates vying for the 2020 Democratic presidential nomination took the stage on Tuesday night in Charleston for their last debate before South Carolina’s primary on Saturday.

Here is how the candidates’ remarks stacked up against the truth.

What They’re talking about:

Ms. Warren: “At least I didn’t have a boss who said to me, ‘kill it,’ the way that mayor Bloomberg is alleged to have said to one of his pregnant employees.”

Mr. Bloomberg: “I never said it, period. End of story.”

This allegation was made by an employee of Bloomberg LLP in a 1997 lawsuit that was eventually settled with no admission of guilt. Mr. Bloomberg has denied making the remark over the years, including at the debate. His aides said in 2001 that he had passed a lie detector test, but the results were not released.

Mr. Bloomberg left a voice message for the employee saying that he had heard she was upset about the remarks, according to the Associated Press, saying “I didn’t say it, but if I did, I didn’t mean it.”

The Washington Post recently quoted a former Bloomberg employee who said he witnessed the conversation and that it was “outrageous.”

What the facts are:

What Mr. Steyer Said:

“You wrote the crime bill,” he said, prompting an angry response from Mr. Biden, “to put hundreds of thousands of young black and Latino men in prison.”

Mostly True. In the 1980s and 1990s, Mr. Biden, working with Senator Strom Thurmond, Republican of South Carolina, wrote half-dozen crime bills together, laying the groundwork for three of the most significant pieces of crime legislation of the 20th century: the Comprehensive Crime Control Act of 1984, establishing mandatory minimum sentences for drug offenses; the 1986 Anti-Drug Abuse Act, which dictated much harsher sentences for possession of crack than for powder cocaine; and the Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act of 1994, a vast catchall tough-on-crime bill that also included money for prevention, including Mr. Biden’s signature initiative, the Violence Against Women Act.

The 1986 law, in particular, led to vast racial disparities in federal sentencing. The law specified a mandatory minimum sentence of five years in prison for possession of 5 grams of crack cocaine — a drug prevalent in African American communities — or 500 grams of powder cocaine, more prevalent among whites.

A 2002 report to Congress from the United States Sentencing Commission found that in 1992, 91.4 percent of federal crack cocaine offenders were black. In releasing a 2006 report on the 1986 measure, the American Civil Liberties Union called the law “a tragic mistake.”

Mr. Biden ultimately disavowed the measure. In 2007 — more than two decades after it passed — he called for undoing the crack-powder disparity, which he called “arbitrary, unnecessary and unjust,” while acknowledging his own role in creating it.

“I am part of the problem that I have been trying to solve since then,” he said in 2008, “because I think the disparity is way out of line.”

What the Facts are:

What Mr. Sanders:

“What every study out there, conservative or progressive says: ‘Medicare for all’ will save money.”

False. There have been several analyses of Mr. Sanders’s Medicare for all health care proposal, which would provide every American with generous government-funded health insurance benefits. Those studies have shown a range of potential costs, including several that estimate that the plan would cost substantially more than what the country would otherwise spend on health care.

Mr. Sanders is correct that a recent study published in the medical journal The Lancet showed that his plan would cost $450 billion less in a year than the current health care system. But that study made several assumptions that other economists who have examined the plan have considered unrealistic. Other studies have shown that spending would increase as the plan expands coverage to more Americans, and provides them with expensive new benefits, like long-term care, which few health insurance plans currently cover. This article provides an overview of a few of these studies.

What the Facts are:

What Mr. Sanders said:

“The economy is doing really great for people like Mr. Bloomberg and other billionaires. In the last three years, last three years, billionaires in this country saw an $850 billion increase in their wealth. But you know what? For the ordinary American, things are not so good. Last year, real wage increases for the average worker were less than 1%. Half of our people are living paycheck to paycheck.”

The second claim is true. After adjusting for inflation, wages for production and nonsupervisory workers increased by 0.7 percent from January 2019 to January 2020, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.

The third claim is also true, according to several surveys of American families. In one such survey, the First National Bank of Omaha found 49 percent of Americans say they expect to live paycheck-to-paycheck this year.

The first claim is more difficult to assess. Calculations by University of California-Berkeley economists Emmanuel Saez and Gabriel Zucman, who have estimated wealth shares across the income distribution in the United States and scored Mr. Sanders’ proposed wealth tax, suggest that the top 400 wealthiest Americans have collectively gained about $500 billion in wealth over the last three years. There are more than 400 billionaires in America, though — and there is a debate among economists over how to properly measure the wealth they hold.

What the Facts Are:

What Mr. Biden Said:

“Bernie voted five times against the Brady bill, and wanted a waiting period of 12 hours.”

This is true. Mr. Sanders voted against the Brady bill, which mandated a 5-day waiting period for gun purchases, five times as Congress considered various versions. Mr. Sanders did vote for an amendment to the bill that would have imposed an instant background check system, but the technology did not exist at the time.

But overall, Mr. Sanders has a mixed record on guns and he has admitted that his position on guns has evolved, saying at a February debate that “the world has changed and my views have changed.” Since 1992, he’s received grades ranging from a C- to an F from the National Rifle Association and an F in his most recent re-election campaign in 2018.

He has also voted against funding for gun research (though he has since reversed his position), for increasing the burden of proof to prosecute lawbreaking gun dealers, and for allowing firearms on Amtrak trains and in national parks.

But Mr. Sanders also fulfilled his pledge to vote in favor of banning assault weapons. He has also voted to regulate high capacity magazines, expand background checks, prohibit the sale of firearms to people on the government’s terrorist watchlist.

Mr. Sanders did vote twice to prohibit lawsuits against firearms manufacturers for crimes committed with a gun in 2003. He has since reversed his position and co-sponsored legislation in 2017 and 2019 to repeal the laws that shields gunmakers from liability.

What the facts are:

What Ms. Warren Said:

“I dug in, I fought the big banks, I built the coalitions and I won.”

Mostly True. Ms. Warren, then a Harvard law professor, pushed for the creation of the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, the federal agency established by Congress in 2010 as part of the Dodd-Frank Wall Street Reform and Consumer Protection Act. President Barack Obama called the agency “Elizabeth’s idea” and applauded her “sheer force of will, intelligence and a bottomless well of energy.”

That said, Mr. Sanders has a long record of advocating for an overhaul of Wall Street regulations and for breaking up the big banks — a central theme of his campaign against Hillary Clinton for the Democratic presidential nomination in 2016.

What They’re Talking About:

What Mr. Buttigieg Said:

“In Charleston alone, just in Charleston, over 2,000 people have contributed to my campaign. That means the dollars that have come to my campaign, just from Charleston, is more than the dollars that have come from the 50 people that you mentioned.”

Forbes Magazine named 40 billionaires who have contributed to a total of more than $113,000 to Mr. Buttigieg’s campaign, as of December 2019. Mr. Buttigieg, a former mayor, has a point that his campaign is not predominantly or even largely funded by billionaires. According to the campaign finance watchdog group Open Secrets, Mr. Buttigieg has raised over $35.8 million from individuals who have contributed less than $200 and another $46.6 million from large donations.

It’s unclear if his specific claim comparing individual donors in Charleston to the billionaire donors is accurate. According to the State, a South Carolina newspaper, Mr. Buttigieg raised $74,000 from 117 donors in Charleston and $271,202 from all donors in South Carolina. Mr. Buttigieg’s average donation was $34 in the fourth quarter of last year, according to his campaign. That’s about $68,000 for the 2,000 people, assuming the average holds for South Carolina. Mr. Buttigieg’s campaign has received donations from 741,000 people, behind only to Mr. Sanders (1.4 million) and Senator Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts (892,000).

Fact checks by Linda Qiu and Sheryl Gay Stolberg.

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