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Wednesday, September 5, 2012

Fact-Checking the Democratic Platform


The Democratic Party platform, released this week during the convention in Charlotte, N.C., contained a number of exaggerated or misleading claims in civil liberties and housing.


The Democratic platform includes a plank called “Staying True to Our Values at Home,” which pledges to make sure that the nation's antiterrorism efforts do not run afoul of the Constitution or people's civil liberties - a pledge critics say has not always been kept in the last four years.

“Advancing our interests may involve new actions and policies to confront threats like terrorism, but the president and the Democratic Party believe these practices must always be in line with our Constitution, preserve our people's privacy and civil liberties, and withstand the checks and balances that have served us so well,'' the platform states. “That is why the president banned torture without exception in his first week in office. That is why we are reforming military commissions to bring them in line with the rule of law. That is why we are substantially reducing the population at Guantánamo Bay without adding to it. And we remain committed to working with all branches of government to close the prison altogether because it is inconsistent with our national security interests and our values.”

Some civil libertarians, disappointed that many Bush counterterrorism programs continued without significant changes, would take issue with the claim that Mr. Obama's policies have been “in line with our Constitution” or have adequately protected privacy and civil liberties. Perhaps most contentious has been Mr . Obama's overseas use of drones. While there have been few complaints about the raid that killed Osama bin Laden, some legal scholars and rights activists were especially critical of Mr. Obama's approval of using a drone to kill an American citizen, the cleric and Al Qaeda propagandist Anwar al-Awlaki, in Yemen last year.

While the administration has asserted that Mr. Awlaki was a dangerous threat and a legitimate target under domestic and international law, some people are uncomfortable with the idea that a president can designate an American citizen for execution without presenting evidence in court or allowing a defense. At least two other Americans have been killed in strikes in Yemen, but officials have said they were not the targets.

It is true that Mr. Obama outlawed brutal interrogations in his first week, requiring that detainees in American custody be treated “humanely.” Although torture was already illegal, the Central Intelligence Agency under th e Bush administration had been authorized by the Justice Department to use the suffocation technique called waterboarding and several other methods considered by most human rights experts to be torture.

Mr. Obama's executive order eliminated any uncertainty about whether coercive methods were permissible. But Mr. Obama disappointed many supporters by opposing any comprehensive review of Bush counterterrorism programs, and his Justice Department last week closed the last investigation of C.I.A. interrogations without charging anyone.

It is also true that, with the cooperation of Congress, military commissions have been significantly altered under Mr. Obama to bring their rules closer to those of civilian courts. But as the platform suggests, Mr. Obama's promise to close Guantánamo in his first year in office remains unfulfilled. Some critics believe the administration mishandled the issue, not moving quickly enough to empty and close the prison. But Congress pass ed restrictions on moving detainees out of Guantánamo, and instability in Yemen prompted officials to stop sending Yemeni detainees home, so the prison is likely to remain open for years.

The platform also says that the administration is committed to “the most open, efficient and accountable government in history” - a pledge some critics say Mr. Obama has failed to carry out so far. The Justice Department has continued to block lawsuits involving intelligence matters by invoking “state secrets,” and the administration has prosecuted six former government workers for leaking classified information to the press, more than all previous administrations combined.


The Democratic platform states that “President Obama took swift action to stabilize a housing market in crisis, helping five million families restructure their loans to help them stay in their homes, making it easier for families to refinance their mortgages and save hundreds of d ollars a month, and giving tax credits to first-time home buyers.”

He did take action to help stabilize the housing market, though with what many critics describe as lackluster results. Mr. Obama's signature initiative to help homeowners is HAMP, the Home Affordable Modification Program. It did help many Americans lower their monthly payments, though only about 1 million homeowners have completed permanent modifications. (The modifications have saved the average family $536 a month.) The other major housing program â€" HARP, or the Home Affordable Refinance Program â€" has aided an additional 1.3 million homeowners.

So where does that five million number come from? It seems to include the three million modifications completed through the HOPE Now Alliance â€" an umbrella group of mortgage servicers, housing counselors and mortgage finance players. But it's not a government function, so the Democrats should not be taking credit there.

As for the credit fo r first-time homebuyers, economists think it enticed few new buyers into the market, instead encouraging people with the means and desire to buy a house to do so sooner than they otherwise might have to gain the credit.

Moreover, home prices continued to fall after the credit expired â€" in many places, they have only just bottomed out recently â€" leaving thousands of homeowners who took advantage of the credit underwater on their mortgages.

More generally, the Obama administration has met with broad criticism for not doing enough to aid homeowners â€" by changing Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac's rules to allow principal reduction for homeowners who owe more than their houses are worth, or by allowing bankruptcy courts to alter mortgages, or by simply reaching more homeowners with HAMP and HARP, for instance.

The administration combats those criticisms by arguing that doing more to help homeowners might have destabilized banks, or by saying that Congress would not have agreed to go along with more ambitious housing plans.

One way or another, housing remains a major drag on the economy, and millions of Americans remain at risk of losing their homes.