FACT CHECK: Gingrich off on his budget history

December 16, 2011 - 5:01 AM

WASHINGTON (AP) — Newt Gingrich overlooked a couple of years of red ink when he asserted Thursday night that he balanced the budget for four years as House speaker. And in claiming sole credit for the achievement, he glossed over the fact that budgets are not a one-man show: There was a Democratic president in town, too.

In the last debate before the leadoff Iowa Republican presidential caucuses, Gingrich persisted in repeating a claim he has made often in the campaign, sometimes more accurately than others. Here and there, other candidates, too, reprised misstatements or partial truths from the string of debates and from the stump. Mitt Romney once again declared he has spent his life in the private sector, once again ignoring his years as governor and political candidate.

A look at some of the claims in the debate and how they compare with the facts:

GINGRICH: "I balanced the budget for four straight years, paid off $405 billion in debt — pretty conservative."

THE FACTS: In the 1996 and 1997 budget years, the first two years he shaped as speaker of the House of Representatives, the government actually ran deficits. In 1998 and 1999, the government ran surpluses. Two more years of surpluses followed, but Gingrich was gone from politics by then and had nothing to do with them.

Moreover, the national debt went up during the four years Gingrich was speaker. In January 1995, when he became speaker, the gross national debt was $4.8 trillion. When he left four years later, it was $5.6 trillion, an increase of $800 billion.

To be sure, Gingrich did not single-handedly deepen America's debt, just as he didn't balance any budgets on his own. He was a driving force along with Democratic President Bill Clinton and figures in both houses of Congress in the economic setbacks and advancements of that time.

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ROMNEY: "I spent my life, my career, in the private sector."

THE FACTS: Except, that is, for four years as Massachusetts governor, recent years running for president in the 2008 and 2012 elections, a few years running the Olympics, and the time he put into his failed run for a Senate seat in 1994.

In essence, Romney has devoted himself to political endeavors since his successful run for governor in 2002, and has been pursuing the presidency for five years.

The month after his term as governor ended in 2007, he announced his campaign for the Republican presidential nomination. After John McCain defeated him for the nomination, Romney devoted himself to building a political network, helping Republican candidates raise money, and writing a book that set the stage for his second run for president.

Indeed, Romney, who made his fortune as founder of the investment firm Bain Capital, has not held a private-sector job with a regular paycheck in more than a decade.

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MICHELE BACHMANN: "We have an IAEA report that just recently came out that said literally Iran is within just months of being able to obtain that (a nuclear) weapon."

RON PAUL: "There is no U.N. report that said that. It's totally wrong, what you just said."

Bachmann: "It's the IAEA report."

THE FACTS: As Paul said, the report of the International Atomic Energy Agency does not state that Iran is within months of having nuclear arms. The U.N. agency report does suggest that Iran conducted secret experiments whose sole purpose is the development of nuclear weapons but did not put a time frame on when Iran might succeed in building a bomb, and it made no final conclusion on Tehran's intent.

Bachmann also erred by arguing that Iran has "stated they will use it (a nuclear weapon) against the United States."

Iran vehemently rejects that it is developing a nuclear bomb, let alone that it plans to drop one on the U.S.

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ROMNEY: "I'm firmly in support of people not being discriminated against based upon their sexual orientation. At the same time, I oppose same-sex marriage. That's been my position from the beginning."

THE FACTS: In large measure, Romney has been consistent in those two positions, despite accusations of flip-flopping on gay rights.

He walked a fine line back in his failed 1994 Senate campaign, vowing to fight for equality but stopping short of endorsing gay marriage. That's the same line he walked Thursday night.

He has changed, though, on whether gay marriage should be addressed at the state or federal level. He has favored a constitutional amendment banning gay marriage at least since the beginning of his 2008 presidential bid, when he was the only major Republican candidate to do so. In 1994, he had said the matter should be decided by individual states. That was before the idea of a constitutional ban had gained traction in politics.

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BACHMANN: "After the debates that we had last week, PolitiFact came out and said that everything I said was true."

THE FACTS: Not true.

For the second debate in a row, Gingrich complained that Bachmann wasn't getting her facts straight, this time when she went after him for the big money he made from Freddie Mac. In her own defense, Bachmann cited ratings from PolitiFact, a fact-checking organization that ranks statements on a scale from true to false, with the worst offender being "Pants on Fire" false.

PolitiFact rated two Bachmann statements from last week's debate. One, claiming Gingrich once believed in an individual health care mandate, was ranked mostly true. The other, that Romney introduced "socialized medicine" in his state, was judged burning-pants false.

Indeed, Bachmann has the worst record of accuracy in the Republican field, as rated by that organization and traced by others. Fully 73 percent of her statements checked by PolitiFact were judged mostly false or worse. Gingrich was wrong the next most often, 59 percent of the time.

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Associated Press writers Steve Peoples, Bradley Klapper, Douglass K. Daniel and Jim Drinkard contributed to this report.