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Midwestern Mythmaking in Iowa

In red-hot House race, both sides take shots that bounce out-of-bounds.

October 6, 2006

Modified: October 6, 2006

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Summary

Two ads in Iowa's 1st congressional district, one by the GOP's House campaign committee and the other by its Democratic counterpart, attempt to damage candidates Bruce Braley and Mike Whalen, respectively. The Democrats' ad makes Whalen sound out of touch with Americans on energy issues, as well as with Iowans' passion for ethanol. The Republican spot tries to tar Braley with the view of two groups that have endorsed (or at least said something positive about) him.

Both ads are misleading. The Democrats' spot lifts a quote from Whalen's reply to a question during a candidate forum. Whalen's very next sentence, omitted by the ad, changes the meaning of his words completely. The Republicans' ad cites approving statements about Braley by what it calls an "ultra-liberal" group, as well as the U.S. Communist Party. But the ad's assertions about the "ultra-liberal" outfit are wrong, and the ad offers no evidence Braley has had anything to do with either one.

Analysis

The ad wars between the two sides in this race are going full tilt, with the parties pitching in to lighten the load of the candidates. That strategy doesn't necessarily enhance the ads' credibility, though. We'll take the Democrats' attack on Whalen first.

“Energy Problem” or Context Problem?

DCCC Ad: "Better Choice"

(On Screen: Photo of Mike Whalen and a photo of President Bush)
Announcer: Mike Whalen and George Bush: they just don't get it.
(On Screen: Footage of George Bush)
Announcer: Bush gave billions in tax breaks to oil companies while they made record profits.
(On Screen: Footage of Mike Whalen)
Announcer: Millionaire Mike Whalen actually said: 'We don't have an energy problem.'  And he was a leader of a group that opposes incentives for ethanol. 
(On Screen: Footage of Bruce Braley
Announcer: There's a better choice. Bruce Braley supports ethanol and Iowa 's farmers. He'll crack down on tax giveaways to oil companies. Bruce Braley: the right change for Iowa . The Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee is responsible for the content of this advertising.

The Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee spot, which aired on Sept 30, claims President Bush has given “billions in tax breaks to oil companies,” and quotes Republican House candidate Mike Whalen saying, “we don’t have an energy problem.”  It’s true that a 2005 law granted tax breaks to energy companies. But by taking Whalen’s quote out of context, the ad misleadingly makes it appear as if Whalen is insensitive to consumers’ energy woes.  The quote is part of a lengthy response Whalen gave during a debate with his primary challengers on the May 19 episode of the public television show “Iowa Press.” Here is Whalen’s full response to the question posed by Associated Press senior political writer Mike Glover:

Glover: Mr. Whalen, gas prices are near $3 a gallon. 

Whalen: Right.

Glover: That impacts everything that happens from commuters trying to drive to work –

Whalen: And how many pork chops you can sell too.

Glover: Exactly.

Whalen: Right.

Glover: What do you do about it in Congress?

Whalen: Well, we don’t have an energy problem.  We have a government problem.  Government has stopped American oil and gas producers from drilling in large parts of this country.  We have governmental policies that have stopped us from building clean nuclear energy.  We have governmental policies that have stopped us from adopting clean coal technology.  And we’ve had a government that hasn’t done enough, in my opinion, to really boost renewable fuels.  So what we need to do in a lot of ways is recognize that our energy problem is a government problem.

It is clear from the full exchange that Whalen believes there's a problem with the nation's current energy situation, and that government is at the root of that problem.

Opposes Incentives for Ethanol?

The DCCC claims Whalen was the leader of “a group that opposes incentives for ethanol,” referring to Whalen’s role as policy chairman for the National Center for Policy Analysis from Nov 2004 until April 2005.  However, according to NCPA Communications Director Sean Tuffnell, Whalen had no control over what the group’s analysts published.  Tuffnell also told FactCheck.org that the NCPA is “energy neutral” and that the group's analysts have written papers criticizing subsidies for ethanol as well as other energy sources.

In June 2005, after Whalen’s tenure as policy chairman, an NCPA policy analyst published an editorial that read: “Like so much of the pork Congress bestows upon special interests, ethanol is bad for the economy, bad for consumers and bad for the environment.”  According to the Quad-City Times   article cited in the DCCC ad, Whalen’s spokesman said his boss "doesn’t agree with the criticisms of the renewable fuel, and it is not unusual for people to belong to organizations with which they do not totally agree.”

Whalen's position on ethanol, according to his website , is as follows:

Whalen: Ethanol and new bio-energy production facilities are good for Iowa and good for our security.  Renewable energy is a critical part of the comprehensive effort I see as necessary for the country to accomplish true energy independence.

Commies and Ultra-Liberals

NRCC ad "Out of Touch"

Announcer: (cut off) ...trial lawyer Bruce Braley attacking Mike Whalen? Maybe it's because he doesn't want you to take a closer look at who's supporting him.
Announcer: An ultra-liberal group who called for huge defense cuts.
(On screen: Council for a Livable World advocates $130 billion in defense cuts)
Announcer: and who has a leader that advocated negotiating with the Taliban – has endorsed Braley.
(On screen: Council for a Livable World: A leader advocated negotiating with the Taliban)
Announcer: And Bruce Braley has been called a "peace candidate" by the Communist Party.
(On screen: Bruce Braley, Communist Party USA, Peace Candidate)
Announcer: Bruce Braley: endorsed by ultra-liberals.
(On screen: Endorsed by ultra-liberals.)
Announcer: Out of touch with Iowa. The National Republican Congressional Committee paid for and is responsible for the content of this message.
(On screen: Out of touch with Iowa)

Now for the other side. The National Republican Congressional Committee's Sept 29 ad uses the guilt-by-distant-association tack to go after Democratic candidate Bruce Braley. 

The ad tells us that Braley is supported by the Council for a Livable World, which has, indeed, endorsed him – but everything else the ad says about the group is either false, misleading or an ideological judgment call. The ad calls the Council "an ultra-liberal group who called for huge defense cuts." The text on the screen reads "advocates $130 billion in defense cuts."

The NRCC told FactCheck that this information came from a document authored by an offshoot of the Council in 1999, entitled "Potential Reductions in the Pentagon's 10-Year Budget." First of all, the $130 billion is a ten-year figure. But more importantly, any defense cuts that were  recommended prior to 9/11 are clearly outdated. The Council's Executive Director John Isaacs told us that the group doesn't support such cuts now. It does advocate the elimination of weapons of mass destruction and some other Pentagon spending. But it also calls for increased funding for Predator drone spy planes, for body armor and armored vehicles, and for improving detection and elimination of improvised explosive devices, among other things.

The Council does not have "a leader that advocated negotiating with the Taliban," as the announcer says. Neither the executive director nor the chairman of the group said anything about such negotiations. The NRCC is imprecisely referring to Roger Fisher, who serves on the Council's 30-member board and is a professor emeritus at Harvard Law School and director of the Harvard Negotiation Project. He's also co-author of a book called "Getting to YES: Negotiating Agreement Without Giving In" (the last three words of the title seem important). Several weeks after the 9/11 attacks, Fisher wrote an opinion piece that appeared in the Boston Globe. Among other things, Fisher wrote:

Fisher: What we want is to influence high-level people in Afghanistan to make a decision. Both a stick and a carrot can help. We are wisely warning of damaging military consequences if they fail to decide as we would wish and suggesting the possibility of humanitarian aid if they do.

What the Taliban had to "decide," of course, was whether to turn over Osama bin Laden, as the U.S. was demanding. Two days after Fisher's piece appeared, the U.S. began dropping bombs on Afghanistan.

This line of attack, by the way, is something of a retread. The Republicans have used the Council's support – mentioning the outdated "$130 billion" in defense cuts and/or the false "negotiating with the Taliban" jibe – against other Democratic candidates in 2004 and even 2002.

Whether the Council is an "ultra-liberal" group is, of course, a judgment call.  It's chaired by former Democratic Senator Gary Hart of Colorado, whose national security bona fides include a stint as co-chairman (with former New Hampshire Republican Senator Warren Rudman) of the  U.S. Commission on National Security for the 21st Century, which in its report of January 2001 (and a preliminary report in 1999) warned of a major terrorist attack on the U.S. The Council's board consists of eminent scientists (including Nobel Prize winners), weapons experts, retired generals and others. And, as Isaacs points out, the group is endorsing several Republicans in this year's elections.

Red Scare

The NRCC ad also tells us that Braley has been called a "peace candidate" by the Communist Party. That's true. The Party's newspaper, the People's Weekly World, gave the label to several Democratic candidates in an August issue. However, Braley didn't seek the Communists' support, and it's not even clear whether being called a "peace candidate" is the equivalent of an endorsement. If it is, it doesn't mean much. The U.S. Communist Party's membership is very small, and stagnant. According to a an article by Sam Webb, the party's national chair, posted  on the party's website on June 27, 2004: "The Party is growing either very slowly or not at all. Our membership is roughly 2,500."

The beginning of this ad cites a New York Times story of Sept. 27 as the basis of its assertion that Braley is "attacking" Whalen. The story does say Braley "attacked" Whalen in an ad about Social Security. But two sentences later, it says Whalen "accused" Braley in an ad about Iraq. Whalen doesn't mention that part of the Times story.

by Viveca Novak & Emi Kolawole

(Correction Jan. 23: This article originally placed the Communist Party's membership at 15,000. Later research found it to be much lower)  

Sources

Davies, Dave.  "They're doing the big nasty - no, not that, - in 6th District," The Philadelphia Daily News.  25 Oct 2004. 

O'Hanlon, Kevin.  "GOP leader criticizes Connealy contribution," The Associated Press State & Local Wire.  17 Aug 2004.

Rowett, Michael.  "GOP blasts Pryor for taking 'anti-military'endorsement,"  The Arkansas Democrat-Gazette.  4 Apr 2002. 

"NRSC Campaign Heats Up," National Journal's CongressDaily.  30 Sept 2002. 

"Representative Nita Lowey and Tom Davis discuss Election 2002,"  Transcript.  NBC News: Meet the Press. 1 Sept 2002.

Fisher, Roger.  "Getting to Yes with the Taliban," The Boston Globe.  5 Oct 2001.

Schatz, Joseph J., "Bush's Budget: Tax Cuts Redux," Congressional Quarterly Weekly.  11 Feb 2006. 

Nagourney, Adam, "New Campaign Ads Have a Theme: Don't Be Nice," The New York Times. 27 Sept 2006.

Sam Webb, national chair, Communist Party of the United States, "Discussion on the Status and Role of the Party," CPUSA website, 27 Jun 2004.