“For Senate, no spin … just facts”

— voiceover of Emily’s List ad for Pennsylvania Senate candidate Katie McGinty (D)

The battle between former representative Joe Sestak (D-Pa.) and former White House aide Katie McGinty may be history, as McGinty on April 26 won the Democratic nomination to face incumbent Sen. Pat Toomey (R-Pa.) in the fall. But we still would like to examine this television ad because it demonstrates a disturbing trend — what our old colleague Mark Stencel has called the “weaponization of fact checking.”

In this case, Women Vote, an arm of Emily’s List, a Political Action Committee that seeks to elect pro-choice Democratic women, is using words “true” and “truth” and even cites a fact checking organization to advance a deeply misleading claim. The group got away with it because television stations in Pennsylvania kept running the ad even though the Sestak campaign provided evidence that it was false.

The Facts

The commercial opens with a shot of Sestak being interviewed by Fox News’s Bill O’Reilly, perhaps to associate the candidate with the right-leaning network. Then the voice-over intones:

“For Senate, no spin, just facts. Joe Sestak supports a plan that the New York Times reported makes cuts to Social Security benefits. And the plan raises the retirement age. It’s true [image of “PolitiFact: True”]. The AARP opposed the plan, citing dramatic cuts to Medicare benefits. The plan Sestak supports means higher out of pocket costs for millions on Medicare. Anyway you spin it, the truth about Sestak is gonna hurt.”

Note the use of validators, such as the New York Times, the retiree group AARP and PolitiFact, and the words “true” and “truth” and “facts.” The ad is designed to have a ring of authority.

But what was this evil plan? It turns out to be the 2010 report by the National Commission on Fiscal Responsibility and Reform, better known as Bowles-Simpson because it was co-chaired by former White House chief of staff Erskine Bowles, a Democrat, and former senator Alan Simpson (R-Wyo.). President Obama established the commission, which sought to identify ways to trim nearly $4 trillion from projected deficits through 2020.

The bulk of the savings were not from proposals affecting Social Security and Medicare, the items highlighted in the ad, but from cuts in discretionary spending and higher taxes. Still, the report landed with a thud in Washington. The commission passed the report by a vote of 11 to 7, which meant it fell short of the 14-vote threshold for sending the package to Congress for a vote.

Sestak was not on the commission, and while in Congress he never cast a vote regarding its provisions. Emily’s List bases its claims on vague references of “support” for the plan that Sestak has made on a handful of occasions over of the years, mostly in the context of the general need to reduce the budget deficit.

When the plan was released in December 2010, Sestak was already an outgoing member of Congress, having just narrowly lost a Senate race to Toomey. Emily’s List cites an article that appeared in the Wilkes-Barre Citizens’ Voice in 2011 in which the former congressman decried partisanship at the time over the debt limit. He said that Obama should have embraced Bowles-Simpson with the “power of the bully pulpit” to achieve long-term budgetary reform before the debt crisis took place.

In a 2010 speech cited by Emily’s List, given before the report was released, Sestak said that “we have to structurally address our entitlement programs.” More recently, in 2016, Sestak referred to the plan as a “template upon which you can address both the needed raise in revenues and the proper reform of entitlements.”

None of these statements are particularly noteworthy. In the 2012 presidential campaign, President Obama said he had used the plan as an outline for his own deficit-reduction efforts. “That’s what we’ve done, made some adjustments to it, and we’re putting it forward before Congress right now, a $4 trillion plan,” he said in a debate with Mitt Romney.

Moreover, when Obama tried to reach a “grand bargain” with Republicans on the deficit in 2011, he floated the idea of changing the cost-of-living adjustment for Social Security benefits — and then even included the concept in his 2014 budget proposal. When Emily’s List accuses Sestak of wanting to cut Social Security benefits, it is actually referring to a proposal embraced by Obama.

More to the point, Sestak has never embraced or voted on particular elements of the Bowles-Simpson report. His support remained vague — and at times was critical. In an interview on MSNBC shortly after the report was released, he said the long-term health of Social Security could be handled easily but health care entitlements such as Medicare and Medicaid were a bigger challenge. “That was the disappointment in the deficit commission,” he said. “They just said, here’s a cap on Medicare and Medicaid health care. They didn’t say how to go.”

The Sestak campaign, in its letter to television stations, cited dozens of votes in Congress in which Sestak supported expanded Social Security benefits. The letter also cited Sestak’s 2015 book, filled with policy proposals, in which he called for making the wealthy pay more into Social Security so benefits would not need to be cut or the retirement age raised. In other words, Sestak’s actual plan was the exact opposite of what Emily’s List suggests.

The ad’s citation of PolitiFact is especially misleading. That 2014 fact check had nothing to do with Sestak but concerned a House member who had voted for a 2012 resolution that called for following the principles of Bowles-Simpson. (It failed 38 to 382.) Buried in the article, PolitiFact said it was true that Bowles-Simpson called for raising the retirement age. But it also noted that under Bowles-Simpson, it would not inch up from 67 to 68 until 2050. The ruling in this particular fact check was “half true.”

Emily’s List communication director Marcy Stech defended the ad. “The facts stand for themselves,” she said. “In this Democratic primary, this distinction is a key difference between McGinty and Sestak and one PA voters deserve to hear.”

The Pinocchio Test

This ad is a depressing example of how random statements can be twisted into sharp-edged attacks. Sestak never supported the specifics of the plan highlighted by Emily’s List; he offered just vague expressions of interest in tackling the challenges posed by systemic budget deficits.

This is indeed a serious issue, but few lawmakers will be willing to make hard choices if they fear they will be falsely attacked like this. Emily’s List is doing a disservice to American democracy when it engages in such deceptive advertising.

In fact, Obama made specific policy recommendations derived from the Bowles-Simpson report. One can only imagine the attack ad Emily’s List would have run if Obama were attempting to win a Senate nod against a woman.

Readers always should be wary when political attack ads use the word “truth” and cite fact checkers. The television stations that refused to pull this ad should be ashamed of themselves — as should Emily’s List. This is simply a sleazy way to win a campaign.

Four Pinocchios

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