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Former Gov. Mitt Romney and President Barack Obama at the first presidential debate (AP)
Debates matter. Everyone, from the two presidential candidates to an enraged, postdebate Chris Matthews venting on MSNBC, was recently reminded of this important election-year detail. The meeting in Denver between President Barack Obama and Mitt Romney changed the course of the race, catapulting the GOP challenger into the lead in many national polls and placing Obama on the defensive in several battleground states.
Tonight's second presidential debate could be just as influential, making it equally important to get the facts straight as the candidates hustle for a victory onstage. The scope of discussion at the town hall-style event will increase, with questions from the audience on both foreign and domestic policies. Here's a cheat sheet to help separate the fact from the spin.
Obama: Moderator Martha Raddatz didn't mince words in the vice presidential debate when she asked Vice President Joe Biden why the late U.S. Ambassador Chris Stevens and his team did not receive increased security before Stevens, Glen Dougherty, Sean Smith and Tyrone Woods were killed by terrorists at the U.S. Consulate in Benghazi, Libya.
"We weren't told they wanted more security there," Biden said.
Tonight, Obama may need to revise that answer. With many aspects of the attack still unclear, questions are arising as to whether or not the State Department left its agents vulnerable in an atmosphere of increased security risks.
And as PolitiFact.com notes, during a House investigation into the attack just a day before Biden's remarks, the State Department's regional security officer for Libya went on record saying that he personally asked his superiors for increased security throughout the country.
Obama: The president likes to say he's "doubled" a lot of things, most notably the generation of renewable energy and, in the long term, fuel efficiency of cars and trucks—and is likely to do so again tonight. These boasts will sound great, but they're heavily exaggerated.
Since Obama took office, only a certain division of renewable energy, that of wind and solar power, has doubled; overall, the increase in capacity is under 30 percent. And while the EPA is indeed raising fuel standards for increased efficiency by 2025, FactCheck.org has noted that, contrary to the president's rhetoric, our cars will hardly take us "twice as far" by that point.
Romney: The GOP nominee has his own favorite talking points on energy, starting with his misleading claim that the president has "doubled" something else: gas prices. This statement is technically true, but should be qualified by the fact that prices were extraordinarily low when Obama took office.
Also hyped up is the nominee's talk about Keystone XL, the pipeline project to transport oil from Canada to plants in the Gulf Coast.
The Romney refrain is that Obama botched a crucial energy project by wholly trashing the plans to import more oil from our neighbor to the north. But what Obama did was delay the assembly of the northern part of the new pipeline that was set through Nebraska's Sandhills, and he did so with bipartisan support from the state's lawmakers. A new, more environmentally sensitive route is set to be approved in a few months, and the whole thing should be up by 2015.
Romney: The former governor of Massachusetts is known to downplay the observable effects of the Obama administration's sanctions on Iran. He repeats variations on the line that he delivered earlier this year: that Obama "could have gotten crippling sanctions against Iran," but did not.
Given that Obama has presided over biting sanctions on the Islamic Republic—sanctions that Iran's leaders identify as responsible for the battering of its currency and wider economic turmoil—this talking point seems to require some obvious clarification. When asked about it, Romney's campaign told PolitiFact that the GOP candidate was specifically referring to an instance in 2010 when the administration failed to pass a U.N. resolution sanctioning the Iranian Central Bank.
Setting aside the probability that the veto-prone U.N. giants Russia and China would've blocked that particular resolution if it were pushed by any U.S. administration, it looks as though Romney is hoping this maneuver will come off to undecided voters as a broader failing of Obama's Iran policy.
Obama: The Obama campaign, again through Biden, has pushed back on this Romney line, stating that the president is waging an unprecedented diplomatic and economic effort to squelch the ayatollah's nuclear program. But the administration overreaches when it makes statements giving the impression that before Obama's presidency "there was no international pressure on Iran," to quote Biden.
PolitiFact.com notes a few serious international initiatives the Bush administration undertook to stifle the Iranians' nuclear program:
Resolution 1737, passed in 2006, which banned trade with Iran in all items, materials, equipment, goods and technology that could contribute to the country's development of nuclear-weapon delivery systems.
Resolution 1747, adopted in 2007, which banned the country's arms exports and restricted the travel of additional individuals engaged in Iran's nuclear activities.
Resolution 1803, approved in 2008, which froze the assets of people involved in the nuclear program.
Despite the current campaign of sanctions, the theocratic regime has not renounced its nuclear ambitions, nor have simultaneous negotiations begun to produce any diplomatic solution.
So while Romney will likely try to undermine the severity of the administration's sanctions, expect Obama to leave out the fact that, not only do sanctions predate his taking office, but they still haven't achieved their main purpose.
Romney: When the hot-button issue of immigration comes up, be ready for the candidates to resort to political hit-and-runs. Romney is likely to toss out the charge that Obama "did nothing" to tackle immigration in his first three years. But while the Obama administration certainly hasn't reached a comprehensive plan, the president lobbied for the Dream Act—which would qualify undocumented youth for a conditional path to citizenship—while the Democrats controlled the House. The Dream Act faced opposition once the Republicans gained control.
Romney might also complain that Obama's deferred-action plan—granting some children born to undocumented immigrants in the U.S. a reprieve from deportation—doesn't offer a clear, permanent solution for immigrants hoping to stay here. Yet in his own plan, only young illegal immigrants who join the military would be able to avoid deportation.
Obama: Meanwhile, Obama may claim that during the Republican primary season Romney endorsed Arizona's controversial SB1070 law—requiring police to determine detainees' immigration status, some argue through racial profiling—and that the challenger called the law a "model for the nation."
Ever since, Romney says he was actually talking about Arizona's e-verify law, which more modestly requires employers to check a job candidate's immigration status on an online database.
Obama: Each candidate is trying to out-bluster the other on "standing up to China." For his part, Obama often alleges that Romney is a "job exporter." Super PACs supportive of the president echo this line of attack, broadcasting that thousands of Chinese employees "owe their jobs" to Romney.
While it's true that a good deal of Romney's money is invested in China, many of the claims that give more weight to Obama's jabs—sure to be repeated tonight—rest on flimsy foundations. Take the charge that Global Tech, a company Bain Capital acquired while Romney was CEO, began producing products in China that could have been made here at home.
PolitiFact notes that this is mostly misleading: It may be that America had sufficient labor and technology to produce the company's products, like coffeemakers. But long before Romney started his work at Bain, a larger trend in the global market had decided such production would be located in China.
What's more, Obama tends to conflate the fact that many Chinese employees found jobs at companies that Romney had invested in with the more controversial idea that Romney "outsourced" American jobs as a matter of protocol.
Romney: Romney, through ads and in stump speeches, accuses the president of essentially allowing the Chinese to "cheat" trade agreements through currency manipulation, saying that Obama has had "seven opportunities to stop them" that he simply passed up. What exactly were these opportunities?
The Treasury Department issues assessments of trade partners twice a year and presents them to Congress; if it calls out any partner on an offense like currency manipulation, then negotiations go through the International Monetary Fund. Romney's complaint is that "under President Obama, the United States Treasury Department has refused to label China as a currency manipulator seven times."
That's true, but what makes this charge hyperbolic is that it's never been clear that labeling China as a manipulator through the Treasury will stop it from cheating. As PolitiFact notes, it was tried in 1994 to no avail. Plus, the idea that the Obama administration has simply been appeasing China amid its economic mischief is false: Sticking with Romney's magic number, the administration has filed seven trade complaints against China through the WTO.
Obama: Perhaps the most reflective and personal moment of the vice presidential debate last week came in the question on abortion. So it seems likely that Obama and Romney will be pressed to articulate their stances on this key issue.
On this issue, the president has pulled no punches in his advertising. In TV spots called "Dangerous," the Obama camp states that both the top and bottom of the Republican ticket backed "proposals that would outlaw abortions even in cases of rape or incest." PolitiFact verifies this is true for Romney's running mate, Paul Ryan. Yet the GOP nominee himself has historically waffled on this issue, which makes the truth-value of Obama's charge a bit harder to uncover. Romney has at several junctures voiced support for legislation that stipulates "life begins at conception," often a slogan of hard-line pro-life advocates.
However, contrary to Obama's ad, and perhaps his remarks tonight, Romney has never in any concrete way backed a bill or initiative to outlaw abortion, whether outright or with exceptions for rape, incest or life of the mother.
Romney: Romney will have to fit his remarks into his latest, unexpected statement on abortion and his presidential agenda.