Debate Fact Check: What Are They Talking About, and What Is True?

The second round of Democratic debates is underway in Detroit, with 10 candidates onstage for the second of two back-to-back nights. The other 10 candidates who qualified for the debates appeared on the same stage on Tuesday.

Our reporters are following all of the exchanges. They will be fact-checking the candidates and providing context and explanation for the policy debates.


What was said:

Jake Tapper, debate moderator: “Vice President Biden says that your current position on busing, you’re opposed to federally mandated busing, that that position is the same as his position. Is he right?”

Ms. Harris: “That is simply false. And let’s be very clear about this, when Vice President Biden was in the United States Senate working with segregationists to oppose busing which was the vehicle by which we would integrate America’s public schools, had I been in the United States Senate at that time I would have been completely on the other side of the aisle.”

Ms. Harris was talking about Mr. Biden’s work alongside several segregationist senators — including James Eastland of Mississippi and Strom Thurmond of South Carolina — to fight court-ordered school busing as a remedy for school desegregation in the 1970s and early 1980s.

Mr. Biden did not respond to Ms. Harris’ comment during the debate. He has said that his record on school desegregation has been misrepresented, and he maintains that he supported busing as a remedy for the intentionally discriminatory policies that kept white and black students in separate schools in the South, but not as a remedy for segregation that resulted from neighborhood housing patterns.

But The Times investigated Mr. Bidens’ record, reviewing hundreds of pages of congressional documents and interviewing experts and Biden contemporaries, and found that his opposition to busing was far more sweeping than he has led voters to believe. For example, Mr. Biden vigorously opposed a federal court order that mandated busing as a remedy for intentional segregation in his home state of Delaware.

What the facts are

What was said:

Ms. Harris: “Your plan, by contrast, leaves out almost 10 million Americans.”

Mr. Biden: “Your plan, no matter how you cut it, costs $3 trillion when it is in fact employed.”

These statements are mostly true. Neither Ms. Harris nor Mr. Biden are backing the Medicare for all plan being promoted by Senators Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren, which would replace all private insurance coverage with a government plan. Mr. Biden wants to expand Obamacare by offering a public option. He says his plan would cover 97 percent of Americans — a figure that Ms. Harris appeared to seize on to justify her statement that his plan would leave 10 million people uncovered.

Ms. Harris did not dispute Mr. Biden’s assertion that her plan would cost $3 trillion but said the cost to the nation would be even greater if her plan was not enacted.

What the fact are

What Mr. Biden said:

“What happened? Along came a federal judge and said enough is enough and he freed 1,000 of these people.”

This is exaggerated. The vice president appeared to be talking about a Daily Beast story that recounted how lawyers in Ms. Harris’ office argued that moving certain parolees out of prison would deprive the state of the use of prisoners to help combat wildfires in the state. The state had been ordered to reduce the prison population in its overcrowded jails, and Mr. Biden attacked Ms. Harris for having to be forced by a federal judge to let the prisoners out.

Representative Tulsi Gabbard of Hawaii piled on, accusing Ms. Harris of keeping “people in prison beyond their sentences to use them as cheap labor for the state of California.” The accusation was leveled directly against Ms. Harris. But the website reported that Ms. Harris said she was unaware that the lawyers in her office were arguing to keep the parolees in office.

Her campaign gave the following statement to the Daily Beast: “Senator Harris was shocked and troubled by the use of this argument. She looked into it and directed the department’s attorneys not to make that argument again.” In response to the attacks Wednesday night, Ms. Harris did not directly respond to the accusation but said to Mr. Biden: “I am proud of the work we did. Work that has received national recognition for what has been the important work of reforming a criminal justice system and cleaning up the consequences of the bills that you passed when you were in the United States Senate for decades.”

what they’re talking about

What Ms. Gabbard said:

“When you were in a position to make a difference and an impact in these people’s lives, you did not and worse yet in the case of those who are on death row, innocent people, you blocked evidence from being revealed that would have freed them until you were forced to do so.”

Ms. Gabbard is likely referring to the case of Kevin Cooper, a black man currently on death row in California after being convicted by a jury for a 1983 quadruple murder. Ms. Harris, as attorney general, did not allow new advanced DNA testing in his case, denying Mr. Cooper’s request. After The New York Times wrote about the case, Ms. Harris told Times columnist Nicholas Kristof that “I feel awful about this” and called on the state to allow for such testing.

While Governor Gavin Newsom of California has ordered additional DNA testing in the case and a number of legal and judicial experts say that Mr. Cooper was wrongfully convicted, the advanced testing has not yet proven Mr. Cooper’s innocence and allowed him to leave death row.

What they’re talking about

What Mr. Inslee said:

“We know this, middle ground solutions, like the vice president has proposed or sort of average-sized things are not going to save us.”

Mr. Inslee telegraphed this week that he would hit Mr. Biden hard on climate change — and he did, slamming the former vice president’s plan as a “middle ground” solution that did too little too late to reduce planet-warming emissions. Mr. Biden pushed back hard, saying there was nothing “middling” about his proposal. It’s accurate that Mr. Biden’s plan doesn’t go as far as Mr. Inslee’s, which calls for ending coal in ten years.

But progressive groups have also praised Mr. Biden’s plan, which proposes spending $1.7 trillion on clean energy, putting a price on carbon dioxide emissions and achieving net-zero emissions by 2050. The Sunrise Movement, the youth-led activist group that has pushed for aggressive climate policies, praised it as comprehensive. But the debate underscored the challenge Mr. Biden still faces in convincing progressives that he will make climate a top priority.

What the facts are

What Mr. Bennet said:

“Since 2001, we have cut $5 trillion worth of taxes. Almost all of it has gone to the wealthiest people in America.”

This is exaggerated. Mr. Bennet’s claim is based on a 2018 report from the liberal Institute on Taxation and Economic Policy in Washington. It finds tax cuts under Presidents Trump, Barack Obama and George W. Bush have combined to cost $5.1 trillion. About one-fifth of those cuts went to the top 1 percent of American income earners. A total of two-thirds went to the top 20 percent of earners. That’s a large windfall for the very rich, but it’s not “almost all” of the benefits.

What the facts are

What Mr. Biden said:

“Since 2007, I, for example, tried to get the crack powder cocaine disparity eliminated.”

This is misleading. It is true that in 2007 Mr. Biden called for reducing the longstanding disparity in which crack cocaine offenders — most of whom were black — received much harsher sentences than those arrested for possession of crack cocaine. But what Mr. Biden failed to mention is that he was the architect of the disparity.

The disparity grew out of a 1986 law, the Anti-Drug Abuse Act, championed by Mr. Biden, that set a minimum of five years for 5 grams of crack or 500 grams of powder cocaine. It took more than 20 years for Mr. Biden to move to undo that provision; in 2007, Mr. Biden called the disparity “arbitrary, unnecessary and unjust” and acknowledged 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.”

Mr. Biden’s reversal on the sentencing disparity is not the only aspect of his record on criminal justice that he is trying to undo. He mentioned during the debate that he wants to give prisoners access to educational Pell Grants — a move that would directly repudiate provisions of the 1994 crime bill, which he also spearheaded in the Senate.

what they’re talking about

What Mr. Biden said:

“The fact of the matter is, if you cross the border illegally, you should be able to be sent back. It’s a crime.”

The debate about how to punish border-crossers is a reaction to Mr. Trump’s use of criminal statutes to imprison violators and deter future migration. But the sharp exchanges on the stage over decriminalization reflects a deep disagreement about whether making border-crossing a crime actually prevents more illegal immigration. Mr. Biden insisted that it does, while Mr. Castro and others have argued that civil violations will allow the border to be secured while treating migrants more humanely.

The debate also has the effect of shifting the focus away from the Trump administration’s most controversial enforcement action: taking children away from parents so that the adults could be imprisoned for crossing the border illegally. Some of the candidates mentioned the family separation issue Wednesday night, but the bigger clash was over whether border crossing should be a crime. That plays into the hands of Mr. Trump and Stephen Miller, the chief architect of his immigration policies. Both have repeatedly accused Democrats of being the party of open borders, an attack that is certain to be at the center of the president’s 2020 election campaign.

What the facts are

What Ms. Harris said:

“There is a syringe that costs $4,000 that will save their life. It is immoral, it is untenable and it must change with Medicare For all.”

This is misleading. A product called Evzio, an auto-injector that contains the anti-overdose medicine naloxone, does cost about $4,000 for a two-dose kit. But at the end of last year, the manufacturer, Kaléo, said it would soon come out with a cheaper generic alternative that will cost $178. In addition, the price of a different, syringe form version of naloxone currently retails for about $80.

What the facts are

What Mr. Yang said:

“Amazon is closing 30 percent of America’s stores and malls.”

This is false. The number of retail establishments — stores — in the United States is growing, not shrinking. There are more than 1 million such establishments, according to the Labor Department. About 75,000 of them closed in 2017, which is the most recent full year in the department’s statistics. There is no evidence that Amazon, or e-commerce broadly, is responsible for all of those closures, but even so, they don’t come anywhere close to a 30 percent closure rate.

Fact checks and explainers by Jim Tankersley, Katie Thomas, Reed Abelson, Michael D. Shear, Sheryl Gay Stolberg and Emily Cochran.