Koch versus Obama
“I wanted to arm you with the facts about the latest attack from Big Oil.”
— Obama deputy campaign manager Stephanie Cutter, in a video release
“Koch takes exception to the President engaging in inappropriate personal attacks on private citizens.”
— Koch response video
Two dueling videos, one by the Obama campaign and one by Koch Industries, illustrates how bitter the fight has become between the White House and the billionaire brothers who have bankrolled many conservative causes, often rallying opposition to the president’s policies.
The recent tit-for-tat started with the latest ad by Americans for Prosperity, an organization which the New Yorker magazine, in a lengthy article, said “was micromanaged by the Kochs” and “has been instrumental in disrupting the Obama Presidency.” (Koch issued a long rebuttal to the article but did not dispute this point.)
The AFP ad, indeed, was riddled with falsehoods and misstatements. We gave it Four Pinocchios, PolitiFact labeled its assertions “mostly false,” “false,” and “pants on fire,” and FactCheck.org was also highly critical.
For the Obama campaign, the Koch brothers are a convenient foil, though as we have written before, the campaign goes too far to label them “Big Oil” because their privately held empire is comprised of many businesses, some not related to petroleum. (We also gave Two Pinocchios to Obama’s response ad to AFP, which was mostly aimed at Mitt Romney.)
Still, given how ludicrously wrong much of the AFP ad was, all Stephanie Cutter, the Obama deputy campaign manager, had to do in the campaign’s video was to highlight some of the errors that fact-checking organizations had already pointed out. (She made other assertions that we will examine below.) We will leave it to readers to decide if she went too far in labeling the political activities of the Koch brothers as “BS.”
Now Koch — pronounced “Coke,” not like the name of the former New York mayor — has responded in kind. Let’s take a deeper look at their video.
The ad begins with a reference to a recent Wall Street Journal opinion article criticizing the Obama campaign for highlighting the backgrounds of some of Mitt Romney’s political supporters, suggesting it was some sort of enemies list. The ad then quotes former solicitor general Ted Olsen — identified in the article as an attorney for Koch — as criticizing the practice as “abhorrent.”
The Koch video rightly dings Cutter for labeling them as “oil billionaires,” noting that “Koch companies have a broad portfolio of businesses, including energy and chemicals used in manufacturing, fertilizer, pollution control, and more — oil refining is just one part of what we do.” But the rest of the video is basically one long non sequitur.
In fact, the most interesting thing about the Koch video is that it does not try to respond to the specific criticisms of the Americans for Prosperity ad. Perhaps that is because it tries to assert that Americans for Prosperity is merely a grass-roots group — noting that “Americans for Prosperity has tens of thousands of contributors and the ad is AFP’s creation.”
“Neither of the Kochs produced the ad that prompted Cutter’s video — Americans For Prosperity did,” said a Koch Industries spokesman who declined to be identified. “And it’s helpful to remember that AFP has a donor base of some 90,000+ people. David Koch didn’t pay $6 million for this ad campaign, nor did he have any role in its content or production.”
Still, the New Yorker article and other reporting makes it clear that the Koch brothers are critical to the funding and direction of AFP, so it is within reason for the Obama campaign to connect the dots.
(Note: Tim Phillips, AFP’s president, did defend the ad as accurate in an article for Breitbart.com and criticized the Fact Checker for “zero substantive refutation of the facts.” But then he repeated the same assertions as ‘facts,” or subtly changed them from the ad, so that $2.3 billion to “jobs in foreign countries” in the ad becomes $2 billion for “foreign companies.” The new phrasing is exactly what we said would be more accurate.)
The Koch spokesman explained that “the reason we talk about our free-market views is because we are strong advocates for economic freedom. It is our belief that free-market principles are the best way to advance societal progress. We oppose special-interest subsidies, cronyism, and things that distort markets. We also believe that the markets are much more efficient in allocating resources than the government picking winners and losers — i.e., favoring one industry (or type of energy source) over another.”
The Koch video also disputes the idea that the Koch brothers are “secretive.” The video says: “Secretive?” For over 50 years, we have always been open and direct about our free-market views … no matter which party is in power.”
Certainly, the Koch family’s conservative views have long been known. David Koch ran for vice president on the Libertarian Party ticket in 1980 (when Ronald Reagan was the GOP nominee.), winning one percent of the vote. As the New Yorker noted:
The Libertarian Party platform [in 1980] called for the abolition of the F.B.I. and the C.I.A., as well as of federal regulatory agencies, such as the Securities and Exchange Commission and the Department of Energy. The Party wanted to end Social Security, minimum-wage laws, gun control, and all personal and corporate income taxes ... Government should be reduced to only one function: the protection of individual rights.
Contributions to candidates and political action committees, of course, are required to be disclosed, with OpenSecrets.org saying that 83 percent of publicly disclosed funding by Koch Industries has gone to Republicans since 2000. But it does seem correct to say the Koch brothers are secretive in some of their use of political funds, with little public disclosure of where some of the big spending — such as to AFP — is going. (Koch Industries is also a famously close-lipped private enterprise; Bloomberg has called the company “obsessed with secrecy.”)
Look at some recent headlines about Koch industries and its political campaign largess: “Secretive Republican Donors Are Planning Ahead.” (New York Times) “Secret Money is funding more election ads.” (The Washington Post). The spokesman responds that “the media will selectively discern between groups they like and dislike by using the words ‘private’ or ‘secret’ — part of the subtle code-word verbiage that some media outlets use.”
Still, Phillips is quoted in the Post article as saying the organization will exceed $50 million in total spending in 2012. How much of that is from the Koch brothers? It is unclear. As the article said:
Phillips defended the ability to keep donors under wraps, saying that the group “works in the public policy arena more than the political arena.” He also cited concerns that donors could be targeted for harassment by the Obama administration and liberal groups.
Much of the rest of the video is a defense of Koch’s political philosophy — “free markets and economic freedom” — which obviously is beyond the realm of fact-checking. The Koch brothers certainly have every right to advocate on behalf of their political goals.
In fact, the weakest part of the Cutter video is when she asserts, without evidence, that the Koch brothers are backing such ads because “President Obama would take away billions of dollars in unnecessary oil tax breaks. Mitt Romney would protect them.”
Though the Koch video does not drive home this point, the Koch spokesman objected to Cutter’s description of the brothers as supporters of Romney. He called this a “false assertion” because “we’ve made no such statement [of support for Romney] nor have provided any contributions to his campaign to date.”
It ultimately becomes a chicken or egg question. We understand the spokesman’s broader point that the Koch brothers are motivated by free market principles, not necessarily a particular animus against Obama. But we have difficulty seeing how, now that a GOP nominee has been all but selected, one can view such a slashing attack on Obama as anything but support for Romney.
The Pinocchio Test
As a rebuttal video, this effort by Koch Industries falls short, as it does not deal with the substance of the Obama campaign’s complaints about the ad. While Koch certainly does not really deserve the label of “Big Oil,” it seems legitimate to call them “secretive,” at least in terms of the extent of their financing for Americans for Prosperity and other such organizations.
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