The final presidential debate was a last hurrah, of sorts, for tall tales told before a large national audience by Republican John McCain and Democrat Barack Obama.
The two took familiar liberties with facts in a matchup that also gave viewers a brand-new head-scratching exchange over a man McCain called "my old buddy, Joe, Joe the plumber."
Each candidate again twisted his rival’s health care plan. McCain told a golden oldie about the U.S. buying oil from hostile countries. Obama gave a squishy answer about abortion. And they criticized each other’s advertising in ways that lacked precision about what’s really going on.
But it was Joe the plumber who threatened to steal the show as McCain — who doesn’t know the guy — used him as an example of how average Americans could be taxed to the max by the Democrat. He was referring to Joe Wurzelbacher, a Toledo, Ohio, plumber who wants to buy his own plumbing company and complained to Obama on Sunday that he’d pay more taxes under his plan.
McCain made plumber Joe sound perhaps too much like an average Joe: "What you want to do to Joe the plumber and millions more like him," he told Obama, "is have their taxes increased and not be able to realize the American dream of owning their own business."
The company Wurzelbacher wants to buy earns more than $250,000 a year, which would make him decidedly above average in income. But McCain was right that Wurzelbacher’s tax load would probably increase, because Obama proposes to raise taxes on income over that amount.
Also in the debate:
OBAMA: Said that if families get a $5,000 tax credit for buying health insurance and the insurance then costs $12,000, that’s a loss for them.
THE FACTS: The tax credit offered by McCain is more generous for the vast majority of people than the current tax break, which they would lose, according to the Tax Policy Center. Now, people don’t pay taxes on the health benefits they get from work. Obama’s statement gives the impression that $5,000 is all that workers will be getting to help them pay for a health plan, but that’s just what the federal government will provide. Economists say most employers would still contribute to their workers’ health insurance. The Lewin Group, a health care consulting firm, found that by taxing health benefits but providing a tax credit, the average family would come out $1,411 ahead.
McCAIN: "We have to stop sending $700 billion a year to countries that don’t like us very much."
THE FACTS: This is a reference to U.S. spending on oil imports. McCain has repeatedly made this claim. But the figure is highly inflated and misleading. According to government agencies that track energy imports, the United States spent $246 billion in 2007 for all imported crude oil, a majority of it coming from friendly nations including neighboring Canada and Mexico. An additional $82 billion was spent on imported refined petroleum products such as gasoline, diesel and fuel oil. A majority of the refined products come from refineries in such friendly countries as the Netherlands, Canada, the United Kingdom, Trinidad-Tobago and the Virgin Islands.
OBAMA: "One hundred percent, John, of your ads — 100 percent of them — have been negative."
THE FACTS: The statement is mostly true when it comes to McCain’s current commercial spots. But by saying McCain’s ads "have been" 100 percent negative, Obama ventures into misleading territory. A recent study by the Wisconsin Advertising Project at the University of Wisconsin-Madison found that in the first week of October "nearly 100 percent" of McCain’s ads were negative. The study also reported, however, that to date 73 percent of McCain’s ads have been negative and that 61 percent of Obama’s ads have been negative.
McCAIN: "Sen. Obama is spending unprecedented amounts of money in negative attack ads on me."
THE FACTS: Obama is spending unprecedented amounts of money on ads, period — negative or otherwise. Obama is outspending McCain and the Republican Party by more than 2-to-1 in presidential ads. At one point in August, 90 percent of the ads Obama was airing were against McCain. The study by the Wisconsin Advertising Project found that about 34 percent of Obama’s ads are now negative.
McCAIN: Said of Obama’s running mate Sen. Joe Biden: "He had this cockamamie idea of dividing Iraq into three countries."
THE FACTS: Biden actually proposed dividing Iraq into three semiautonomous regions, not separate countries. He was a prime sponsor of a nonbinding Senate resolution that called for Iraq to have federal regions under the control of Kurds, Shiites and Sunnis in a power-sharing agreement similar to the one that ended the 1990s war in Bosnia.
OBAMA: Said he would be "completely supportive" of late-term abortion restrictions "as long as there’s an exception for the mother’s health and life."
THE FACTS: Obama leaves himself a lot of latitude in this answer. A woman’s "health" has been so broadly interpreted that it can include conditions, including psychological conditions, that are difficult to diagnose or prove. Anti-abortion advocates say that makes the ban meaningless, because it leaves too much subjective judgment in the equation.
MCCAIN: "Sen. Obama, as a member of the Illinois state Senate, voted in the Judiciary Committee against a law that would provide immediate medical attention to a child born in a failed abortion. He voted against that."
OBAMA: "If it sounds incredible that I would vote to withhold lifesaving treatment from an infant, that’s because it’s not true."
THE FACTS: As a state senator, Obama opposed three legislative efforts, in 2001, 2002 and 2003, to give legal protections to any aborted fetus that showed signs of life. The 2003 measure was virtually identical to a bill President Bush signed into law in 2002 — a bill that passed before Obama was in the U.S. Senate, but one that Obama said he would have supported. The state of Illinois already had a law to protect aborted fetuses born alive and considered able to survive. Among those opposed to the state effort was the Illinois State Medical Society, which argued that the bill would interfere with the doctor-patient relationship and expand civil liability for doctors. Critics said the proposed legislation would have undermined the landmark Supreme Court case on abortion, Roe v. Wade, in ways the federal law would not.
McCAIN: "Senator Obama talks about voting for budgets. He voted twice for a budget resolution that increases the taxes on individuals making $42,000 a year."
THE FACTS: The vote was on a nonbinding resolution and did not increase taxes. The resolution assumed that President Bush’s tax cuts would expire, as scheduled, in 2011. If that actually happened, it could mean higher taxes for people making as little as about $42,000.
OBAMA: "We can cut the average family’s premium by $2,500 a year."
THE FACTS: If that sounds like a straight-ahead promise to lower health insurance premiums, it isn’t. Obama hopes that by spending $50 billion over five years on electronic medical records and by improving access to proven disease management programs, among other steps, consumers will end up saving money. He uses an optimistic analysis to suggest cost reductions in national health care spending could amount to the equivalent of $2,500 for a family of four. Many economists are skeptical those savings can be achieved, but even if they are, it’s not a certainty that every dollar would be passed on to consumers in the form of lower premiums.
McCAIN: "Vouchers, where they are requested and where they are agreed to, are a good and workable system, and it’s been proven."
THE FACTS: McCain’s education plan proposes more private-school vouchers for only one jurisdiction: Washington, D.C. It’s unclear whether the four-year-old Washington program is actually working. So far, the Education Department has found little if any difference in the test scores of kids who got vouchers to attend private school.
McCAIN: "We can eliminate our dependence on foreign oil by building 45 nuclear power plants right away."
THE FACTS: For nuclear power to lower oil dependency would require a massive shift to electric or hybrid-electric cars, with nuclear power providing the electricity. No new U.S. nuclear reactor has been built since the 1970s. Although 15 utilities have filed applications to build 24 new reactors, none is expected to be built before 2015 at the earliest. Turmoil in the credit markets could force cancellation of some of the projects now planned, much less spur construction of 45 new reactors, as reactor costs have soared to about $9 billion apiece.
AP writers Tom Raum, Libby Quaid, Lolita C. Baldor, Kevin Freking and H. Josef Hebert contributed to this report.