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When Democrats Attack

Ads accuse Republican House members of supporting oil and drug companies - and Bush. We find some factual stumbles.

November 2, 2006

Modified: November 2, 2006

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Summary

Gauging by the attack ads flowing from the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, the party's House contenders are running against Exxon, Pfizer and Bush. The ads tie Republican House candidates to unpopular industries and an unpopular President. Some of these ads are exaggerations.

At times DCCC ads run completely off the rails of factual accuracy. One falsely implies that an Illinois candidate tried to ban Dr. Seuss books from schools. Another correctly states that an Ohio candidate was investigated "for abusing her position," but fails to mention that the investigation found "no substance" to the allegation. Others claim Republicans voted to "raid the Social Security trust fund," a bit of misleading nonsense we've noted previously.

What follows is our analysis of 143 ads from the DCCC that have appeared since Labor Day, nearly all of them attack ads. For our take on ads from the DCCC's counterpart, the National Republican Congressional Committee, see the article we posted Oct. 27.

Analysis

This analysis, like our earlier report on NRCC ads, covers TV spots run since Labor Day in the top 101 television markets, covering 87 per cent of US television households. The ads were supplied to us by the Campaign Media Analysis Group . As previously reported, ads from both party organizations are nearly all attack ads. The Republican ads were more likely than the Democratic ads to denigrate the personal character of the opposing candidate, while the Democratic ads, covered here, are more likely to attack based on public-policy positions or performance in office.

Accused of supporting the President

A common theme in the DCCC's ads is simply to point out an incumbent GOP House member's record of support for President Bush.

A typical ad is one in Pennsylvania which begins, "Melissa Hart votes with George Bush and Rick Santorum 98 per cent of the time." On screen, a counter rapidly runs up to 98 and then stops. Hart is pictured with Bush and Republican Sen. Santorum, both of whom are scoring poorly in recent polls.

In this case the DCCC is exaggerating a bit. Congressional Quarterly actually puts  Rep. Hart's record of voting for bills endorsed by the President at 89 per cent in 2006 and also in 2005. Throughout her nearly 6-year House career she's supported Bush's legislative agenda 92 per cent of the time, according to CQ .

In all, we count 42 DCCC ads that accuse GOP candidates of being too supportive of the President, referring to them variously as "rubberstamps" or "Bush's candidate" or saying they support "Bush's agenda." The DCCC is attacking three Republican candidates for being "another vote for George Bush's agenda," even though all three are challengers and have never served a day in the House. They are Mike Erickson in Oregon, Mike Whalen in Iowa, and Rick O'Donnell in Colorado.

We can't predict how anyone will vote in the future, but despite the DCCC's occasional exaggeration, it's generally true that Democratic House members are far less likely than Republicans to support Bush-backed legislation. In 2005 House GOP members supported the President 81 per cent of the time on average, with Democrats supporting Bush only 24 per cent of the time.

Oil and drugs

We count 34 DCCC ads accusing Republican candidates of being too close to oil companies, pharmaceutical makers, or both.

  An ad against Indiana Republican Chris Chocola calls his relationship with oil companies "A Washington Love Affair."  Another says"We've learned that Chris Chocola's in the pocket of big oil. Turns out, Chocola's in the pocket of big drug companies too."

Oil: These ads typically attack an incumbent for supporting "billions in tax breaks" for oil companies or opposing "a crackdown on price gouging" at the gasoline pump.

It's true that the Republican-controlled Congress passed an energy bill last year containing $14.3 billion in tax breaks , of which $2.8 billion was for oil and natural gas producers. The bulk went to electric utilities, including nuclear, and also to subsidies for energy-efficient cars, homes and buildings and alternative fuels research. It's also true that Republicans were nearly unanimous in opposing several Democratic proposals to establish staggeringly large penalties for "price gouging" in the future – up to $100 million in fines and prison terms of up to 10 years in one measure. But as we've reported  previously, all these would have defined "gouging" in hazy and subjective terms that could prove difficult to enforce or uphold in court.

Pharmaceuticals: Concerning drug companies, the ads generally attack Republicans for supporting President Bush's Medicare prescription drug benefit, and particularly for the absence of federal price controls on the drugs it covers. A typical ad says Rep. Curt Weldon of Pennsylvania "voted to ban Medicare from negotiating lower-cost drugs for our seniors." Others equate the new drug benefit to giving companies a windfall. New Mexico Rep. Heather Wilson is blamed in one for "voting for Bush's plan that gives drug companies billions in profits."

It's true that the Bush plan prohibits federal officials from negotiating discounts from drug makers, relying instead on competition among insurance companies to hold down prices. It is also true that the new program will allow millions of seniors to buy drugs they previously could not afford, boosting sales and quite possibly profits as well. However, the precise effects on profits can't be known until drug makers report annual sales figures to shareholders for the first year or two of the program, which went into effect Jan. 1.

As we have said before, most seniors seem to be better off financially under the new program than they were before, and the program is overwhelmingly popular with those who are enrolled. The nonpartisan Kaiser Family foundation has estimated the average senior who enrolls will spend 37 per cent less on prescription drugs in 2006, an average saving of $465. Kaiser also released  a national poll  showing that more than eight in 10 seniors who enrolled in a Medicare drug plan say they are satisfied with it. Kaiser concluded: "For most seniors, initial experiences under the drug benefit have been positive."

Campaign Donations: We found 23 ads in which Democrats mentioned contributions to Republican incumbents from the oil, gas and pharmaceutical industries. A typical ad says Connecticut Republican Rep. Rob Simmons "took nearly two hundred thousand dollars from the pharmaceutical industry and voted for George Bush's prescription drug plan." It's certainly true that Republicans have received far more than Democrats in recent years from drug companies, which for years opposed any Medicare drug benefit at all on the belief that federal price controls would follow. The Center for Responsive Politics calculates that in the 2004 elections Republicans got 66 per cent of the pharmaceutical industry's campaign donations, while Democrats got 34 per cent.

Another DCCC ad says North Carolina Rep. Charles Taylor "fills up his campaigns with over a hundred and ten thousand dollars from Big Oil and Gas while filling our tanks is nearly three bucks a gallon." The Republican bias among oil-industry donors is even more pronounced than among drug-company givers. The CRP tabulations  show 80 per cent of donations from the oil and natural gas industry went to Republicans in the 2004 election cycle, and only 20 per cent to Democrats. But the cause of high gasoline prices wasn't campaign donations. Economists generally attribute the wild fluctuations to market forces exacerbated by fears of a major disruption in supply from the Middle East. 

And in fact, by the time that anti-Taylor ad made its debut on Sept. 5, the average price of regular gasoline already had plunged to $2.74 per gallon from a peak of $3.04 a month earlier.  It was $2.12 the week of Oct. 30.

Other Distortions

We've reported on a number of DCCC ads containing factual stumbles in some earlier articles. One ad accused GOP Rep. Clay Shaw of profiting personally by trading in a drug-company stock while supporting the Medicare drug benefit, but we found  the company to which the ad referred didn't make any drugs covered by the new benefit – they all were anti-cancer drugs already covered by regular Medicare, and the company told shareholders it was a bit worried the new Medicare bill had rules that might actually reduce profits. We now count 8 DCCC ads making a false claim that Republicans who vote for annual budget bills calling for deficits are somehow voting to "raid the Social Security Trust Fund." That's nonsense . The trust fund receives exactly as many legally binding federal IOUs whether the overall budget is balanced or not. In addition, we count 7 ads that  claim that Republican candidates support the President's plan to "privatize" Social Security. But the Bush proposal – to allow some Social Security taxes to be put in individual accounts and invested in a few broadly diversified mutual funds – died last year without ever being put into formal legislative language, due to a lack of support. 

Some other DCCC ads we found problematic:

  • Ban Dr. Seuss: A DCCC ad attacking Illinois Republican Pete Roskam claims Roskam, "supported banning classic books.  Even a book with writings by Martin Luther King, Laura Ingalls Wilder and Dr. Seuss." That's misleading. Roskam never supported banning any books by Dr. Seuss or King, or Wilder's Little House on the Prairie, which is among those pictured in the ad. (He once said his own children read that one.) The book "with writings" from Dr. Seuss and the others was an anthology called Impressions that sparked national debate in 1990 and 1991 when some parents and religious groups claimed that a handful of the 822 selections in the 15-volume series promoted Satanism and witchcraft. But the DCCC has produced no evidence that Roskam ever voiced support for "banning" that anthology. An editorial in the Chicago Tribune on Oct. 20, 1992 endorsed Roskam's opponent and gave Roskam's "tacit support" for banning Impressions as a reason. But "tacit" support isn't active support, and could mean no more than not speaking out against the book-banning advocates. According to  news accounts at the time, Roskam did  support legislation in 1992 that would have required parents to be more involved in the state's formal screening process for school textbooks, but the bill itself wouldn't have banned anything.
  • Abuse of Power? : Another DCCC ad claims Joy Padgett, an Ohio Republican running for Bob Ney's House seat, was investigated "for abusing her position to help her own business." The ad is misleading.  It's true that  Ohio's Inspector General received a complaint – from somebody requesting anonymity – claiming that Padgett had abused  her position as director of the Governor's Office of Appalachia by coercing would-be grant recipients to buy goods from her office supply business. The IG did investigate, but what the ad fails to mention is that the investigation  found "no substance to the allegation."  

That Inspector General's report also noted in passing that appearances can be deceiving. It said public officials "should be aware that while such appearances may often have no basis in fact, they may be incorrectly assumed as fact by the casual observer." The message to officials is to be careful of how things look. But citizens should be equally careful not to be a "casual observer" of political spots. Examined carefully they often turn out to have "no basis in fact," either.

-by Brooks Jackson, Viveca Novak, Justin Bank, James Ficaro and Emi Kolawole

Sources

Poole, Isaiah J.  "Presidential Support Background," CQ Weekly.  9 January 2006.

"Preliminary House Presidential Support Scores for 2006 — Arranged by State ," CQ Weekly, 23 Oct 2006.

Jim Mays, Monica Brenner, Tricia Neuman, Juliette Cubanski and Gary Claxton, "Estimates of Medicare Beneficiaries' out-of-pocket drug spending in 2006: Modeling the Impact of the MMA," Kaiser Family Foundation, Nov. 2004.

Kaiser Family Foundation, "Most seniors enrolled in Medicare drug plans say they are satisfied with their plans," press release, 27 July 2006.

Pyke, Marni.  "Candidates tussle over Iraq, North Korea," Chicago Daily Herald.  20 Oct 2006.

Presecky, William.  "'Impressions' may leave its mark on the race in House District 40," The Chicago Tribune.  17 Feb 1992.

Anderson, David E.  "Censorship efforts at public schools mounting," United Press International.  28 Aug 1991.

Hazard, Anne.  "Illinois Ninth Among States For Incidences Of Censorship," States News Service, 1 Sep 1992.

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