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  1. Florida Politics

PolitiFact: Fact-checking the Democratic debate in South Carolina

Democratic presidential candidates Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders participate in a debate hosted by NBC News and YouTube on Sunday in Charleston, S.C. (Photo by Andrew Burton/Getty Images)
Democratic presidential candidates Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders participate in a debate hosted by NBC News and YouTube on Sunday in Charleston, S.C. (Photo by Andrew Burton/Getty Images)
Published Jan. 19, 2016

Hillary Clinton, Bernie Sanders and Martin O'Malley sparred over guns and health care in the first Democratic presidential primary debate of 2016, two weeks before caucus voters in Iowa head to the polls.

Sanders, a senator from Vermont, started the debate by calling Clinton's attacks on his gun bill voting record "disingenuous," bragging about a poor rating from the National Rifle Association. But Clinton doubled down on her criticisms, insisting Sanders has broken with supporters of gun control many times.

Sanders and Clinton also clashed over their approaches to reforming the nation's health care system.

Here's what the candidates got right and wrong in their attacks.

Clinton defended the Affordable Care Act, saying that the discussion needs to shift away from replacing the health care law with a single-payer system.

"We now have driven costs down to the lowest they've been in 50 years," she said. "Now, we've got to get individual costs down. That's what I'm planning to do."

We found that Clinton was incorrect, so we rated the statement False.

The actual per-person cost of health care has increased steadily over the past half-century.

The Clinton campaign admitted the candidate misspoke during the debate and actually was talking about the rate at which health care costs have been going up.

At another point, Sanders rejected assertions by Clinton that a Sanders presidency could imperil President Barack Obama's signature legislative initiative.

Clinton said, "There are things we can do to improve (the Affordable Care Act), but to tear it up and start over again, pushing our country back into that kind of a contentious debate, I think is the wrong direction."

Sanders countered, "We're not going to tear up the Affordable Care Act. I helped write it."

This overstates Sanders' role in the process, making him sound like more of an insider than he actually was. We rate his statement Mostly False.

Sanders supported a more aggressive single-payer system, and multiple news articles quoted him as being undecided about supporting the main Democratic bill until late in the process.

Sanders did play a role, however, in securing $11 billion for community health centers, especially in rural areas. The insertion of this funding helped bring together both Democratic lawmakers on the left and Democrats representing more conservative, rural areas.

So, there's a case to be made that Sanders made an important contribution to the final legislation, but he oversells his role when he says he "helped write" it.

Clinton continued to hammer Sanders for his vote in support of a 2005 bill that dealt with liability for gunmakers and sellers. Clinton contrasted Sanders' 2005 vote with his recent change in position to make a subtle case of political flip-flopping.

"I am pleased to hear that Sen. Sanders has reversed his position on immunity," Clinton said.

Clinton is right that Sanders has reversed his position in recent days. Her claim rates True.

After months of Sanders and his staff defending the 2005 vote during the current campaign, Sanders' position started to evolve three months ago. Sanders said in October that he would "take another look" at the liability question. This is consistent with a Saturday news release saying he supported a proposal to rescind the immunity provisions before Congress.

To look back only to October doesn't tell the full story, ignoring not only the 2005 vote but also several instances in which Sanders or his staff defended those votes in interviews between June 2015 and early January 2016.

When Sanders said he had always supported background checks, Clinton countered that he had "voted for what we call the Charleston loophole," referring to the June killing of nine African-Americans in a Charleston, S.C., church.

We rate Clinton's claim Mostly True.

His votes were actually against federally mandated waiting periods, not for a provision that sets a time limit on a background check.

In 2015, accused shooter Dylann Roof was able to buy a gun after the waiting period had lapsed — the result of a clerical error when the FBI sought records from the wrong local law enforcement agency about Roof. Whether more time would have made a difference remains unknown. But Roof was able to purchase the gun after a three-day waiting period expired.

Sanders' votes don't line up precisely as Clinton presented them. Sanders was against waiting periods for background checks. Roof was able to purchase a gun after waiting out a three-day time limit on background checks.

Times staff writers C. Eugene Emery Jr., Angie Drobnic Holan, Louis Jacobson and Katie Sanders, and Miami Herald staff writer Amy Sherman contributed to this report. Read more debate rulings at PolitiFact.com.