FACT CHECK: 4 Claims From the First GOP Primary Debate

Republican presidential debate kicks of the 2024 election season (AP Photo).

By Fiona Hatch

August 25, 2023

Here are some of the highlights from the debate in Milwaukee, and a fact-check of how true each claim is.

On Wednesday night, the Republican Party held its first presidential primary debate ahead of the 2024 Election in Milwaukee.

Eight Republican candidates took the stage on Wednesday, including:

  • Former Vice President Mike Pence;
  • Entrepreneur Vivek Ramaswamy;
  • US Senator Tim Scott;
  • Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis;
  • North Dakota Gov. Doug Burgum
  • Former South Carolina Governor Nikki Haley;
  • Former Arkansas Governor Asa Hutchinson, and;
  • Former New Jersey Governor Chris Christie.

One notable Republican candidate was surprisingly absent: Donald Trump chose to sit out the debate because polling of the race shows him far ahead of his rival candidates.

A range of topics were covered over the course of the night, including climate change, abortion, the Russian invasion of Ukraine, and the economy under the Biden Administration.

Here are some of the biggest claims made during the debate, and how true they actually are:

Ramaswamy: Climate Change is a hoax

One of the most controversial claims made during the two-hour debate came from Vivek Ramaswamy, the youngest candidate on the stage.

“The climate change agenda is a hoax. And the reality is, the anti-carbon agenda is the wet blanket on our economy. More people are dying of bad climate change policies than they are of actual climate change,” said Ramaswamy.

The statement was met by overwhelming boos from the crowd, and both Christie and Haley gave immediate responses to Ramaswamy’s denialist claim.

The vast scientific consensus is that climate change is both real and caused by humans, with the UN Climate Change Panel calling the scientific evidence of climate change unequivocal. Organizations like NASA, the World Wildlife Fund (WWF), and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) all support this consensus and concur that climate change is real and actively affecting the world’s environment.

Haley: Biden’s green subsidies are going straight to China

Climate change was a pretty sensitive subject for debate, resulting in a sparring match between Ramaswamy and Christie that the moderators were unable to tame. Haley jumped onto the bandwagon, saying “this is exactly why Margaret Thatcher said: if you want something said ask a man, if you want something done as a woman.”

However, her own response on climate change was only slightly less problematic than Ramaswamy’s.

“If you wanna’ go and really change the environment, you need to start telling China and India they have to lower their emissions. That’s where our problem is and these green subsidies that Biden has put in? All these have done is help China, because he doesn’t understand that all these electric vehicles that he’s done half of the batteries for electric vehicles are made in China, that’s not helping the environment, you’re putting money in China’s pocket and Biden did that,” said Haley.

While it’s true that China accounted for around 60% of electric vehicle battery supply in 2022, Biden’s Inflation Reduction Act (IRA), which includes several clean energy stipulations, has actually expanded the number of clean energy manufacturing facilities – including those in the EV and battery sectors—in the United States since it was signed into law last August.

Chinese companies are attempting to take advantage of some of the IRA’s subsidies, in some cases by partnering with US companies, but the law has worked as intended in terms of spurring investment in clean energy. Since the law was signed, companies have announced more than $270 billion in investments on clean energy projects that will create nearly 30,000 new jobs and save US customers $4.5 billion, according to the American Clean Power Association.

Haley’s accusations against China and India’s emissions are also misleading. Although the two nations are some of the largest emitting countries today in terms of absolute emissions, the US is the largest per capita emitter alongside Russia.

Scott: The US economy was in record shape when President Trump left office

Critiquing Biden’s economic plan (referred to often throughout the debate as ‘Bidenomics’) was a recurring topic of debate. Senator Tim Scott took particular issue with Bidenomics, taking the opportunity to emphasize his economic efforts as a Senator during the Trump Administration.

“We had low unemployment, record low unemployment, 3.5% for the majority of the population, 70-year low for women. African Americans, Hispanics, and Asians had an all-time low… But our inflation was at 2%. Under Joe Biden, we’ve seen the exact opposite.”

This is incorrect. Data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics show that unemployment surged 13% in the second quarter of 2020 due to the COVID-19 pandemic, and although it decreased by the end of Trump’s term, rates were still as high as 6.7% in December 2020.

Scott’s claims about historic lows for women was also misleading. While unemployment did reach record lows during Trump’s presidency, it increased by the time he left office.

Notably, the unemployment rate under Biden has reached a 50-year low and currently sits at 3.5%. The jobless rates for women, Black workers, Hispancis, and Asians are also at or near historical lows.

Ramaswamy and Pence: Mental health and anti-police movements are causing rising crime rates, not guns

The rise of crime in the US was another topic raised during the debate. Ramaswamy and Pence were some of the first on the stage to answer the question on recent increases in violent crime nationally.

“Over the same period that we have closed mental health institutions, we have seen a spike in violent crime,” said Ramaswamy, suggesting that those with mental illnesses were responsible for most crimes.

In reality, people with mental illness are responsible for only 3% of violent crimes in the US, according to the American Psychological Association.

“Critically, mental illness itself does not predict crime or violence. But serious and untreated mental illness can combine with other risk factors and hardships to lead to violence,” says the Brennan Center for Justice. Instead, the Center emphasizes gun violence as a more important indicator of rising crime, reporting that “approximately 77 percent of murders nationwide in 2020 were committed with a firearm — the highest share reported in FBI data going back to 1960.”

Pence, meanwhile, claimed that Democrats and liberal prosecutors “continue to work out their fanciful agendas” on topics such as bail reform policies and defunding the police.

“What we need is strong commitment to law enforcement,” said Pence.

While bail reform policies are indeed a priority for some Democrats, virtually no police department in the nation has been defunded. Instead, the overwhelming majority have gotten more funding in recent years—from Democrats and Republicans alike.

The Brennan Center’s examination of the recent trends in rising violent crimes also busts the myths that progressive law enforcement and bail reform policies increase violent crime. The Center finds there is no evidence connecting bail reform drove the post-2020 spikes in violent crime. In a study that analyzed data from 35 cities where progressive law enforcement officials entered office, researchers found there was no significant increase in crime rates compared to other jurisdictions.

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