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Bill Clinton Has a Way With Facts, but Is He Accurate?

Thursday, 6 Sep 2012 | 5:14 PM ET

Former President Bill Clinton spoke for nearly twice as long as he was scheduled at the Democratic National Convention Wednesday night, and roughly half his remarks were ad-libbed.

The 42nd President of the United States Bill Clinton addresses the audience at the Time Warner Cable Arena.
Stan Honda | AFP | Getty Images
The 42nd President of the United States Bill Clinton addresses the audience at the Time Warner Cable Arena.

But just try to pin him down on a flat-out falsehood, and you will begin to understand why he has confounded his critics for years. (Read More: Bill Clinton: Obama ‘Laid the Foundation’ for Millions of Jobs.)

Our Investigations Inc. fact checkers found Clinton has a unique talent for shading facts to make his case, while seldom crossing the line many less experienced politicians often trip over.

For example, while we and other fact checkers have taken issue with other convention speakers touting the creation of 4.5 million private sector job in 29 months while ignoring prior job losses or losses of government jobs, Clinton said the same thing with a subtle difference:

“In the last 29 months, our economy has produced about 4.5 million private-sector jobs.” (Read More: Fact Checking the Democrats' Math.)

By specifying that the job creation occurred in “the last 29 months,” the statement became accurate, even if it still did not present the full picture. The former president added that more than 500,000 manufacturing jobs had been created during the period — also accurate while ignoring the steep losses in manufacturing jobs earlier in the Obama presidency.

CNBC Investigations Inc.
CNBC Investigations Inc.

On health care, Clinton stepped even closer to the line.

The former president appeared to credit President Barack Obama’s health-care reforms for a drop in health-care inflation, even though most of the Affordable Care Act has yet to take effect. (Read More: Is Health-Care Ruling a Political Victory for Obama?)

“For the last two years, after going up at three times the rate of inflation for a decade, for the last two years, health-care costs have been under 4 percent in both years for the first time in 50 years,” Clinton said. “So let me ask you something. Are we better off because President Obama fought for health-care reform? You bet we are.”

The figures are correct, according to Consumer Price Index data from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, which put the rate of inflation for medical care at just over three percent in 2010 and 2011, compared to ten percent the year before.

But independent researchers have concluded the drop has more to do with the recession and high unemployment, resulting in fewer people seeking health care.

“Medical goods and services are generally viewed as necessities. Even so, the latest recession had a dramatic effect on their utilization,” wrote Anne Martin, David Lassman, Benjamin Washington and Aaron Catlin in January in the journal Health Affairs. “In 2010, extraordinarily slow growth in the use and intensity of services led to slower growth in spending for personal health care.”

In an appeal to younger voters, Clinton touted President Obama’s student loan reforms, but may have given more credit than is due. (Read More: This Is a Big Day for Millions With Student Loans.)

“You need to tell every voter where you live about this,” Clinton said. “It lowers the cost of federal student loans. And even more important, it gives students the right to repay those loans as a clear, fixed, low percentage of their income for up to 20 years.”

But so-called “income-based repayment” is not an Obama innovation.

First passed in 2007, it went into effect soon after the president took office in 2009. Obama did push an expansion of the program beginning in 2014, then moved it up to this year by executive order. And he famously pushed Congress to continue reduced interest rates on federally subsidized student loans. In addition, a deficit reduction provision in the Affordable Care Act lowered the taxpayer cost for student loans by having the government make loans directly rather than paying private lenders to originate them. Still, Clinton’s next line was a stretch:

Countdown to President Obama
CNBC's Scott Cohn fact checks former President Clinton's speech at the DNC. Jim Pethokoukis, American Enterprise Institute, and Martin Baily, Brookings Institution, discuss.

“Think of it. It means no one will ever have to drop out of college again for fear they can't repay their debt.”

But the Obama administration has done little to stem the rising cost of college, up another 8.3 percent this year according to the College Board.

Clinton also attempted to label Republicans as the party of hate.

“Maybe just because I grew up in a different time, but though I often disagree with Republicans, I actually never learned to hate them the way the far right that now controls their party seems to hate our president and a lot of other Democrats,” he said.

While not naming names, Clinton pointed to the defeat of “two distinguished Republican senators” over their perceived willingness to work with the administration. Longtime Senators Richard Lugar (R., Ind.) and Robert Bennett (R., Utah), appear to fit that description. Both were defeated in primary elections by Tea Party-backed candidates.

Clinton then went on to describe hatred of the president as a sort of litmus test in today’s GOP.

“They beat a Republican congressman with almost 100 percent voting record on every conservative score because he said he realized he did not have to hate the president to disagree with him,” Clinton said. “Boy, that was a non-starter, and they threw him out.”

The Obama campaign has since identified the congressman as Rep. Bob Inglis of South Carolina, who was voted out in 2010. Inglis, who repeatedly refused to brand Obama a socialist, later blamed his loss on his refusal to join “the real bitterness toward the president,” telling The Hill, “I don’t need to join in this hatred of the man.”

But a stated refusal to hate the president is not necessarily a ticket to GOP oblivion as Clinton suggests. We found a similar quote just last month, from a congressman who hardly has been blackballed.

“I’m not one of these people who hates the other side. I don’t hate Democrats or hate liberals. I just disagree with them,” said the quote in the Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel on Aug. 12.

The speaker?

Republican vice presidential nomineePaul Ryan.

—By CNBC's Scott Cohn; Follow Him on Twitter @ScottCohnCNBC

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