Fact-checking the PBS Democratic presidential debate

Bernie Sanders and Hillary Clinton debate in Milwaukee, Wis., Feb. 11, 2016. (Reuters)
Bernie Sanders and Hillary Clinton debate in Milwaukee, Wis., Feb. 11, 2016. (Reuters)

Fresh off his victory in the New Hampshire primary, Sen. Bernie Sanders decried Hillary Clinton’s record and her admiration for former Secretary of State Henry Kissinger as the pair met onstage Feb. 11, 2016, in Milwaukee, Wis.

Sanders came into the last Democratic debate before the Nevada caucuses with momentum from a strong victory in New Hampshire. Clinton, for her part, tried to regain her footing as the primary and caucus calendar moves to more racially and ethnically diverse states, which could provide a more favorable electorate for her campaign.

We fact-checked a number of statements by both candidates.

American income stagnation

During her opening statement, Clinton tried to channel the frustration that has led many voters to consider backing her opponent, Bernie Sanders.

"I know a lot of Americans are angry about the economy, and for good cause," Clinton said. "Americans haven’t had a raise in 15 years."

We rated her statement Mostly True.

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Using inflation-adjusted median household income, she’s right. There has actually been a decline of 7 percent over that period. However, earnings of wage and salary workers have risen over that period by about 2 percent. That’s a very slight increase, but Clinton’s point that Americans are historically worse off stands.

Prescription drug prices

Sanders stuck to debate form and lambasted the U.S. health care system. Among a laundry list of problems he ticked off, the Vermont senator included exorbitant prices for medicines.

"In America, we pay, by far, the highest prices in the world for prescription drugs," he said.

We rated his statement Mostly True.

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He’s right about most brand-name drugs, which yield the highest profit for the pharmaceutical industry. One study comparing the United States and Canada did find exceptions for generic drugs, which are a much smaller share of overall prescription drug spending and offer a much lower profit margin.

Blacks, wealth and Wall Street

Sanders said economic inequality must be addressed to effectively improve race relations in America, because minorities had fared much worse during the housing bubble and recession. The two intertwined crises hit blacks much harder than whites.

"The African-American community lost half of their wealth as a result of the Wall Street collapse," Sanders said.

We rated his statement True.

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Sanders was citing data from the Pew Research Center that showed between 2005 and 2009, African-Americans lost anywhere from 53 percent to 61 percent of their net wealth due to the housing bubble. During the subsequent recession, blacks lost 43 percent of their net wealth from 2007 to 2013.

Bad-mouthing Obama?

In one of the more heated exchanges of the Democratic presidential debate in Wisconsin, Hillary Clinton accused Bernie Sanders of having shown too little loyalty to President Barack Obama.

Clinton said, "In the past, (Sanders) has called (Obama) weak. He’s called him a disappointment." For emphasis, she later repeated the charge that Sanders had used the words "weak" and "disappointment."

Sanders has critiqued Obama and used those words to describe the feelings of Americans, or to describe Obama’s policies. But Sanders did not specifically call Obama "weak" and "a disappointment."

We rate her claim Half True.

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Specifically, Sanders told Thom Hartmann in July 2011: "I think there are millions of Americans who are deeply disappointed in the president, who believe that with regard to Social Security and a number of other issues, he said one thing as a candidate and is doing something very much else as a president, who cannot believe how weak he has been — for whatever reason — in negotiating with Republicans. And there’s deep disappointment."

Note Sanders’ language: He says "millions of Americans" feel that way, not that he did so himself. It’s a small difference, but we think a significant one given the forcefulness of Clinton’s attack line.

The other example we found came on Nov. 13, 2011, when Politico reported that Sanders would not say whether he would support Obama for re-election (though he ultimately did). The Politico article quoted Sanders saying that Obama should "stop reaching negotiated agreements with Republicans that are extremely weak and disadvantageous to ordinary people. ... I certainly hope and expect to be supporting the president, but it’s a little bit early in the process."

Child poverty

One of the questions Sanders faced was whether he would place any limits on the size of government if he were elected. The Vermont senator said the government had a "moral responsibility" to improve everyone’s standard of living, listing several problems he believed the country faces.

Among his issues was that the United States has "the highest rate of childhood poverty of almost any major country on Earth."

We rated his statement Half True.

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Reports have ranked childhood poverty in the United States embarrassingly high for a country so wealthy. But a definitive measure of childhood poverty rates among countries with wide gaps in the standard of living makes his point difficult to illustrate. Income inequality in the United States also may be exaggerating our position.