“In his book, Cuccinelli questions whether Medicare and Social Security should exist.”

— Peggy Borgard, retired Virginia resident in an new television ad sponsored by the Democratic Party of Virginia

Virginia Attorney General Ken Cuccinelli (R), who is running for governor, has offered Democrats a gold mine of targets with his book, “The Last Line of Defense: The New Fight for American Liberty.” As our colleague Laura Vozzella put it: “Spoiler alert: The pages reveal Cuccinelli is a conservative.”

This television ad portrays Borgard as a Henrico County resident who worked for 60 years. (She recently retired as director of operations for a youth soccer league and contributed $700 to Democratic candidates in 2012 and $295 to the Henrico County Democratic Committee in 2011 and 2012, according to campaign finance records.) She offers especially sharp criticism based on material from the book:

“I’m retired and I do rely on Social Security and Medicare. I think Ken Cuccinelli does not care about people like me. In his book, Cuccinelli questions whether Medicare and Social Security should exist, and said people are dependent on government. It scares me to think of Ken Cuccinelli as governor. I think he is way out of touch with everybody.”

Is this what Cuccinelli says in the book?

The Facts

The ad directs readers to pages 62 and 63 of the book. This chapter mostly deals with Cuccinelli’s outrage at the passage of the Affordable Care Act, a.k.a. Obamacare, which he views as an example of lawmakers in both parties creating new programs that he claims make people dependent on government largess. Here is the relevant section:

Sometimes bad politicians set out to grow government in order to increase their own power and influence. This phenomenon doesn’t just happen in Washington; it happens at all levels of government. The amazing thing is that they often grow government without protest from citizens, and sometimes they even get buy-in from citizens — at least from the ones getting the goodies.

One of their favorite ways to increase their power is by creating programs that dispense subsidized government benefits, such as Medicare, Social Security, and outright welfare (Medicaid, food stamps, subsidized housing, and the like). These programs make people dependent on government. And once people are dependent, they feel they can’t afford to have the programs taken away, no matter how inefficient, poorly run, or costly to the rest of society.

Certainly the claim about people being dependent on government is there. But is he really questioning whether Social Security and Medicare should exist? That would be debatable, but it turns out this line is actually undercut by another section of the book, pages 237-238. (Kudos to FactCheck.Org for first noticing this passage.)

A simple example of how private-sector spending increases economic growth more than government spending does would be a business that smartly spends $100 and expects to earn that amount back plus a return on its investment, so it turns $100 into, let’s say, $115. That’s economic growth.

In contrast, despite how many times you may hear politicians talk about “investments” in government programs, government spends very little on what you could call “investments” that result in economic growth. For example, in 2011, the biggest programs in the federal government were Social Security (20 percent of the budget), national defense (20 percent), and Medicare (13.5 percent). There is no monetary return on these investments in any traditional business sense (that is, one invests money with a goal of getting a return in the form of interest, income or appreciation in value), although there are obviously other reasons America spends money on these programs.

I’m not questioning here the existence of these programs nor the wisdom of how much money is spent on them. What I’m trying to illustrate is that most dollars that government spends do not create economic growth but instead take money out of the hands of the people who do create economic growth.

Let’s repeat one of those sentences: “I’m not questioning here the existence of these programs nor the wisdom of how much money is spent on them.”

Contrast that with Borgard’s line: “In his book, Cuccinelli questions whether Medicare and Social Security should exist.”

Borgard, in a brief telephone interview, said she became involved in the ad because she was “invited to a commercial shoot.” Asked if she had actually read the book, she said: “I believe that was in a section that refers to constitutionality, and that’s my only comment.”

Brian Coy, communications director for the Democratic Party of Virginia, said: “It’s impossible to read that page 62 rant and conclude something other than he thinks the origination of those programs was a bad idea. I don’t know how you can write that something was created by ‘bad politicians’ for a nefarious purpose and then say you’re okay that it continues on today.”

Coy also pointed us to two interesting video clips.

One clip shows former GOP congressman Joe Scarborough, now host of MSNBC’s “Morning Joe,” declaring Cuccinelli as “certifiable when it comes to mainstream political thought.” As Scarborough puts it: “This is a guy who attacks Medicare, he attacks Medicaid, he attacks Social Security.”

The other clip shows Cuccinelli being interviewed by Ann-Marie Murrell of the conservative Politichicks.tv at a 2012 tea party rally.

“We have had one answer in federal government to every challenge in health care for 47 years, and that’s more government,” Cuccinelli told Murrell. “It goes back to beginning of Medicaid, Medicare, and as Dr. Phil would say, ‘How’s that working out for ‘ya?’ We need to go the other way. We need to go back to the free market.”

“Contrary to my opponent’s deliberate attempts to distort the truth, I have always believed programs like Medicare, Medicaid and Social Security are government services that should be maintained,” Cuccinelli said in a statement released by his campaign. “I believe in a social safety net, but unlike my opponent, I’m going to be straight with Virginians on this issue. I believe those programs need to be reformed so they can be maintained for future generations. ”

The Pinocchio Test

It is fair to say that Cuccinelli is skeptical of government-run social programs and the motivations of politicians who have promoted them. It is also clear that he prefers free-market solutions as part of any overhaul of such programs. But that doesn’t mean he does not think such programs should no longer exist — or that money should not be spent on such programs.

(Note: as Virginia governor, Cuccinelli would have zero power to make changes to federal programs such as Social Security and Medicare; with federal permission, he could fiddle on the margins of a federal-state program such as Medicaid.)

We have a high standard for attack ads, especially ones that reference entitlement programs. If the Democrats are going to make incendiary charges based on Cuccinelli’s book, they need to quote the book correctly — or use other material to make their case.

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