Commentary Magazine


Topic: Priorities USA

Crossroads Ad Pushes Obama to Condemn Steelworker Ad

There’s a danger in hitting back against wild, unsubstantiated accusations. Do it wrong, and you can end up bringing more attention to the initial smear, i.e. “Congressman Denies Beating His Wife.” But American Crossroads hits the right notes in its latest ad, contrasting the honorable rhetoric of 2008-Obama with the mud-slinging in the Priorities USA steelworker ad. The powerful audio at the end is a great touch (former White House counsel John Dean speaking on the Nixon White House tapes in 1973, informs Mike Allen):

The Romney campaign is also increasing pressure on the Obama camp to denounce the ad. In an interview with Bill Bennett yesterday, Romney tore into the president’s campaign:

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There’s a danger in hitting back against wild, unsubstantiated accusations. Do it wrong, and you can end up bringing more attention to the initial smear, i.e. “Congressman Denies Beating His Wife.” But American Crossroads hits the right notes in its latest ad, contrasting the honorable rhetoric of 2008-Obama with the mud-slinging in the Priorities USA steelworker ad. The powerful audio at the end is a great touch (former White House counsel John Dean speaking on the Nixon White House tapes in 1973, informs Mike Allen):

The Romney campaign is also increasing pressure on the Obama camp to denounce the ad. In an interview with Bill Bennett yesterday, Romney tore into the president’s campaign:

Romney said in a radio interview that the ad was “wrong and inaccurate” and that the Obama campaign should be “embarrassed” the super-PAC, Priorities USA, is standing by the ad.

“You know, in the past, when people pointed out that something was inaccurate, why, campaigns pulled the ad,” Romney said on Bill Bennett’s radio show. “They were embarrassed. Today, they just blast ahead. You know, the various fact-checkers look at some of these charges in the Obama ads and they say that they’re wrong, and inaccurate, and yet he just keeps on running them.”

Frankly, it’s interesting that the Obama campaign hasn’t issued a clear condemnation of the ad yet. Is it because he’s worried about hurting Priorities USA’s fundraising if he speaks out against them too harshly? Wealthy Democrats have already been reluctant to give to super PACs, which was why Obama publicly endorsed Priorities USA in the first place — to let donors know this group was approved by the most principled campaigner ever. If he now denounces the super PAC for running slimy and dishonest ads, that could seriously handicap Priorities for the rest of the season.

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Obama’s Silent Support for Steelworker Ad

We’re several days into the controversy about the Priorities USA steelworker ad, and the Obama campaign has repeatedly declined to condemn it. Campaign staffers have said they don’t know enough about Joe Soptic’s story to comment (even though they organized a conference call for Soptic to share the same story with reporters in May). They’ve also argued that the ad is being run by a super PAC that’s unconnected to the campaign, and therefore Obama has no responsibility for it.

Would the Obama campaign have bought the same excuse from its opponents? Of course not — in fact, the campaign has previously demanded that its opponents denounce sleazy attacks from outside supporting groups.

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We’re several days into the controversy about the Priorities USA steelworker ad, and the Obama campaign has repeatedly declined to condemn it. Campaign staffers have said they don’t know enough about Joe Soptic’s story to comment (even though they organized a conference call for Soptic to share the same story with reporters in May). They’ve also argued that the ad is being run by a super PAC that’s unconnected to the campaign, and therefore Obama has no responsibility for it.

Would the Obama campaign have bought the same excuse from its opponents? Of course not — in fact, the campaign has previously demanded that its opponents denounce sleazy attacks from outside supporting groups.

Remember the outrage after the New York Times report that a conservative super PAC was considering an ad proposal that revived the Reverend Wright controversy? Here was the response from the Obama campaign:

“Stunning! Will Mitt stand up, as John McCain did? Or allow the purveyors of slime to operate on his behalf?” David Axelrod, a senior campaign adviser to Mr. Obama, wrote on Twitter early Thursday morning. …

“This morning’s story revealed the appalling lengths to which Republican operatives and Super PACs apparently are willing to go to tear down the president and elect Mitt Romney,” Mr. Messina wrote.

He added: “It also reflects how far the party has drifted in four short years since John McCain rejected these very tactics. Once again, Governor Romney has fallen short of the standard that John McCain set, reacting tepidly in a moment that required moral leadership in standing up to the very extreme wing of his own party.”

The Wright ad was never even in the works, it was simply one proposal out of many. And unlike Priorities USA, the super PAC in question wasn’t run by a former Romney staffer.

Unlike Priorities USA, the super PAC in question wasn’t run by a former Romney staffer. And yet the Obama campaign held Romney responsible for an ad campaign that never even made it past the proposal stage. Even when Romney quickly condemned the ad proposal, the Obama campaign blasted his response as too tepid and jeered that he wasn’t even willing to stand up to his conservative supporters.

Note also that Obama actually sat in Rev. Wright’s church for 20 years, so that ad would have been far more fair and accurate than the Priorities USA commercial.

At Fox News, Chris Stirewalt also flags a 2007 quote from Obama, calling on John Edwards to ask a supporting outside group to stop running an attack ad:

“If [then-Obama communications director] Robert Gibbs started running a [independent political expenditure group] and I called Robert Gibbs and said, ‘Stop running ads on my behalf,’ are you suggesting I would have no influence over Robert Gibbs?”

– Then Sen. Barack Obama, as quoted by Politico, in West Des Moines, Iowa in December of 2007 attacking opponent John Edwards for negative ads being run by an outside group run by a former Edwards aide.

Judging from past comments from both the president and his campaign, if Obama remains silent on the Priorities USA ad, it should be assumed  he approves of it.

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Serious Misfire by Romney Staffer

Mitt Romney’s Press Secretary Andrea Saul was hit with a biblical flood of conservative outrage yesterday, after she mentioned that the steelworker’s wife in the Priorities USA ad would have had health insurance under Romneycare if she had been living in Massachusetts. Calls for Saul’s firing (and eulogies for the Romney campaign) commenced immediately.

In an interview with Fox News Channel on Wednesday, Andrea Saul invoked Massachusetts’s expansion of health coverage as a defense to a harsh new ad funded by a super PAC supporting President Obama. In the spot, a former steelworker whose plant was closed by Bain Capital blames Romney, who co-founded the firm, for his family’s loss of health insurance and his wife’s subsequent death from cancer.

“To that point, if people had been in Massachusetts, under Governor Romney’s health care plan, they would have had health care,” Saul said in the interview. “There are a lot of people losing their jobs and losing their health care in President Obama’s economy.”

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Mitt Romney’s Press Secretary Andrea Saul was hit with a biblical flood of conservative outrage yesterday, after she mentioned that the steelworker’s wife in the Priorities USA ad would have had health insurance under Romneycare if she had been living in Massachusetts. Calls for Saul’s firing (and eulogies for the Romney campaign) commenced immediately.

In an interview with Fox News Channel on Wednesday, Andrea Saul invoked Massachusetts’s expansion of health coverage as a defense to a harsh new ad funded by a super PAC supporting President Obama. In the spot, a former steelworker whose plant was closed by Bain Capital blames Romney, who co-founded the firm, for his family’s loss of health insurance and his wife’s subsequent death from cancer.

“To that point, if people had been in Massachusetts, under Governor Romney’s health care plan, they would have had health care,” Saul said in the interview. “There are a lot of people losing their jobs and losing their health care in President Obama’s economy.”

Saul’s comment was accurate; the worker would have been insured under Romney’s plan. And as both TNR’s Noam Scheiber and TPM’s Benjy Sarlin have noted, her remark may not have been as off-message as it initially sounded.

That being said, this was still a serious misfire. The Obama campaign and Priorities USA are getting shredded in the media for the Joe Soptic ad. Conservatives are leaping to Romney’s defense. Why trample all that by reminding the right of the one issue that made them reluctant to support Romney in the first place?

Saul’s comment was also irrelevant. She didn’t need to debate the ad on its “merits.” Just point out what virtually every fact-checker has noted — that the story in the ad crumbles under scrutiny. Joe Soptic was laid off years after Romney left Bain; his wife continued to have health insurance through her own job; and his wife passed away five years after Soptic lost his job. There was absolutely no reason to inject Romneycare into the debate.

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Strike Two for Bill Burton?

Bill Burton, former White House deputy press secretary and head of the pro-Obama Priorities USA super PAC, is struggling to defend his latest ad that suggests Mitt Romney is responsible for the death of a steelworker’s wife. You can hardly blame Burton; fact-checkers have found that the ad is dishonest, blatantly misleading, and sleazy, so it’s no wonder he can’t defend it. But why would he run something that is indefensible in the first place? CNN’s Wolf Blitzer pushed Burton on the issue last night (starts around four minutes into the video):

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Bill Burton, former White House deputy press secretary and head of the pro-Obama Priorities USA super PAC, is struggling to defend his latest ad that suggests Mitt Romney is responsible for the death of a steelworker’s wife. You can hardly blame Burton; fact-checkers have found that the ad is dishonest, blatantly misleading, and sleazy, so it’s no wonder he can’t defend it. But why would he run something that is indefensible in the first place? CNN’s Wolf Blitzer pushed Burton on the issue last night (starts around four minutes into the video):

Burton could not have come off looking worse. This has to be a headache for President Obama, who isn’t officially tied to the super PAC but has publicly endorsed the super PAC. Campaign and White House officials have also attended fundraising events for Priorities USA, which means the campaign is going to have a hard time arguing that it has no association with the super PAC.

But Burton’s reprehensible ad, and his inability to defend it in interviews, aren’t his only problems. While Priorities USA was intended to compete with Republican-supporting super PACs like American Crossroads, its fundraising efforts have flopped since the beginning. It has been so weak in this area that the group signed onto a joint fundraising committee with Media Matters founder and head of the American Bridge 21st Century PAC David Brock in April. Committee for Justice President Curt Levy writes:

Former White House Deputy Press Secretary Bill Burton founded the Obama-approved super-PAC Priorities USA Action last April, and his track record to date has been miserable. According to Federal Election Commission, or FEC, data, Burton and company raised just $4.4 million in 2011 — a paltry figure compared with counterpart American Crossroads’ $18.4 million haul for the same year. This year isn’t going so well for Burton, either. Crossroads raised $9.7 million through the first quarter of 2012; Priorities took in just $4.6 million.

And, Bill Burton is the least of the president’s problems. Consider David Brock, founder and CEO of Media Matters and founder of the American Bridge 21st Century liberal super-PAC. Brock has been embroiled in controversy. …

According to FEC disclosures, Burton’s and Brock’s outfits established a joint fundraising committee this April, after months of private talks. There’s enough fundraising desperation in the Obama camp to override any concerns they might have had about Brock’s scandal-plagued past.

You have to imagine that interviews like the one above won’t help Burton’s dismal fundraising efforts. Obama can’t legally coordinate with Burton or stop him from running the ad. But he must be starting to regret he gave the flailing super PAC his seal of approval in the first place.

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Obama Campaign Feigns Ignorance About Romney Attack

The Obama campaign has spent the last day and a half ducking questions about Joe Soptic, the steelworker featured in the Priorities USA attack ad. Campaign adviser Robert Gibbs, White House Press Secretary Jay Carney and Obama campaign spokeswomen Stephanie Cutter and Jen Psaki have gone so far as to claim they don’t know enough about the specifics of the Soptic story to comment on it. Well, it turns out the Obama campaign should actually be pretty familiar with the specifics — because they’ve used Soptic in their own campaign commercials and even set up conference calls between him and reporters. Politico reports:

Soptic, laid off from Bain Capital-owned GST Steel, stars in a Priorities USA Action spot this week in which he tells of how his wife died without health insurance after he lost his job. Soptic also appeared, wearing what appears to be an identical shirt, in a May television ad for the Obama campaign. …

[Stephanie] Cutter hosted an Obama campaign conference call in May in which Soptic told reporters the very story featured in the Priorities spot.

Both the campaign and the Priorities USA Action said there was no coordination about Soptic’s appearances. In the campaign’s ad, Soptic speaks only about the plant. In the Priorities spot, he tells the personal story he relayed during the Obama campaign conference call.

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The Obama campaign has spent the last day and a half ducking questions about Joe Soptic, the steelworker featured in the Priorities USA attack ad. Campaign adviser Robert Gibbs, White House Press Secretary Jay Carney and Obama campaign spokeswomen Stephanie Cutter and Jen Psaki have gone so far as to claim they don’t know enough about the specifics of the Soptic story to comment on it. Well, it turns out the Obama campaign should actually be pretty familiar with the specifics — because they’ve used Soptic in their own campaign commercials and even set up conference calls between him and reporters. Politico reports:

Soptic, laid off from Bain Capital-owned GST Steel, stars in a Priorities USA Action spot this week in which he tells of how his wife died without health insurance after he lost his job. Soptic also appeared, wearing what appears to be an identical shirt, in a May television ad for the Obama campaign. …

[Stephanie] Cutter hosted an Obama campaign conference call in May in which Soptic told reporters the very story featured in the Priorities spot.

Both the campaign and the Priorities USA Action said there was no coordination about Soptic’s appearances. In the campaign’s ad, Soptic speaks only about the plant. In the Priorities spot, he tells the personal story he relayed during the Obama campaign conference call.

It doesn’t matter that the Obama campaign isn’t “officially” connected to the Priorities USA ad. If the campaign has featured the same former GST Steel worker in its own ad, and set up conference calls for him, then a) staffers obviously know much more about his story than they have let on; and b) they have a responsibility to respond to questions about it. If someone is featured in a presidential campaign commercial, it means the campaign is vouching for this person and he has likely been vetted in some capacity. Obama and his team passed Joe Soptic off as a trustworthy source on multiple occasions, and they should have to answer for contradictions or discrepancies in his story.

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Sleazy Super PAC Ad’s Claim Debunked

The pro-Obama Priorities USA ad that blames Mitt Romney for the death of a steeelworker’s wife is even sleazier than it initially sounded. CNN reports that the wife of former GST Steel employee Joe Soptic had health insurance through her own job, despite the ad’s claim that she lost her insurance when her husband was laid off (video via HotAir):

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The pro-Obama Priorities USA ad that blames Mitt Romney for the death of a steeelworker’s wife is even sleazier than it initially sounded. CNN reports that the wife of former GST Steel employee Joe Soptic had health insurance through her own job, despite the ad’s claim that she lost her insurance when her husband was laid off (video via HotAir):

The Obama campaign and the White House has refused to condemn the ad, even as they’re benefiting from its dishonest smears. On “Morning Joe” today, Obama’s campaign adviser Robert Gibbs filibustered for an entire segment as he was pressed to respond to the ad:

“The message is a little over the top. Can’t you admit that?” [Joe] Scarborough asked.

“I don’t know the specifics of this person’s case,” Gibbs said.

“What specifics would you like to know?” Time magazine’s Mark Halperin asked. Gibbs said he didn’t know the specifics of the woman’s health care coverage. It’s been reported Soptic’s wife had health care through another employer.

Stephanie Cutter, Obama’s deputy campaign manager, also declined to condemn the Priorities ad, and used a question about it to shine a negative light on Romney’s business record.

“You do know that we don’t have anything to do with Priorities USA,” Cutter said on CNN’s “Starting Point.” “By law, we’re not allowed to coordinate with them, and by law, we don’t have anything to do with their ads. I don’t know the facts of when Joe’s wife got sick or when she died. But as I said before, I do know the facts of what Mitt Romney did with GS Steel. I do know the facts of how Joe lost his job and his health care. The entire company went bankrupt. But Mitt Romney walked away with a pretty hefty profit.”

The Obama campaign has been warning for months that this election will be influenced by sleazy, false ads outsourced to third-party groups. They were right — and they’re the ones who are doing it.

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Pro-Obama PAC’s Dishonest New Bain Ad

The Obama-supporting Priorities USA PAC has released anti-Bain ads before, but it’s reached a new level of dishonesty with this latest one. It features a former GST Steel worker blaming Mitt Romney for the loss of his job and health care, which he suggests led to his wife’s subsequent illness and death. Politico reports:

The commercial casts Mitt Romney’s business background in a severely negative light, but it’s not a typical slash-and-burn attack ad. Instead, it features former GST Steel employee Joe Soptic speaking to the camera about what happened when the plant where he worked shut down.

“I don’t think Mitt Romney understands what he’s done to people’s lives by closing the plant. I don’t think he realizes that people’s lives completely changed,” Soptic said. “When Mitt Romney and Bain closed the plant, I lost my health care and my family lost their health care. And a short time after that my wife became ill.”

He continues: “I don’t know how long she was sick and I think maybe she didn’t say anything because she knew that we couldn’t afford the insurance. And then one day she became ill and I took her up to the Jackson County Hospital and admitted her for pneumonia and that’s when they found the cancer and by then it was stage four. It was — there was nothing they could do for her. And she passed away in 22 days.”

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The Obama-supporting Priorities USA PAC has released anti-Bain ads before, but it’s reached a new level of dishonesty with this latest one. It features a former GST Steel worker blaming Mitt Romney for the loss of his job and health care, which he suggests led to his wife’s subsequent illness and death. Politico reports:

The commercial casts Mitt Romney’s business background in a severely negative light, but it’s not a typical slash-and-burn attack ad. Instead, it features former GST Steel employee Joe Soptic speaking to the camera about what happened when the plant where he worked shut down.

“I don’t think Mitt Romney understands what he’s done to people’s lives by closing the plant. I don’t think he realizes that people’s lives completely changed,” Soptic said. “When Mitt Romney and Bain closed the plant, I lost my health care and my family lost their health care. And a short time after that my wife became ill.”

He continues: “I don’t know how long she was sick and I think maybe she didn’t say anything because she knew that we couldn’t afford the insurance. And then one day she became ill and I took her up to the Jackson County Hospital and admitted her for pneumonia and that’s when they found the cancer and by then it was stage four. It was — there was nothing they could do for her. And she passed away in 22 days.”

The effort to link Romney to GST Steel’s collapse is fairly flimsy on its own, as the plant declared bankruptcy and shut down years after Romney left Bain. But as Politico’s Alexander Burns reports, the Priorities USA ad also suggests that GST Steel worker Joe Soptic’s wife died shortly after the factory closed, as a result of losing their health insurance. That timeline is misleading, according to Burns:

In the case of this particularly jarring super PAC ad, it may also be relevant that Soptic’s wife died in 2006, years after the GST factory closed down.

A 2006 story in the Kansas City Star reported the death of Ranae Soptic, a former champion roller skater: “Soptic went to the hospital for pneumonia, but doctors found signs of very advanced cancer, and she died two weeks later on June 22.”

I asked Priorities USA strategist Bill Burton to explain the connection between Romney, Bain and a cancer fatality that happened near the end of Romney’s tenure as governor of Massachusetts. The lapse in time between the plant closing and Soptic’s death doesn’t mean the ad is invalid, but it raises questions about the cause and effect relationship here.

The Washington Examiner also looked back at some of Soptic’s previous media appearances, and argues that details in his story have changed:

Why is Soptic upset? Primarily, its because his pension was cut. In this interview, Soptic clarified that his 401k was not affected but he lost $400 a month from his pension.

But in a January 2012 Reuters story, Soptic reportedly said that he only lost $283 per month from his pension.

Soptic isn’t a figure the GOP will have an easy time responding to, because his story is deeply personal and sad. But Priorities USA deserves all the criticism it’s getting for exploiting this story to launch a misleading attack on Romney. To insinuate that Romney was responsible for the death of Soptic’s wife seven years after he left Bain and five years after GST Steel shut its doors is a terrible slander, even by Priority USA’s usual standards.

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Money, Speech and Morgan Freeman

Politico reported this morning that Morgan Freeman donated $1 million to the pro-Obama super PAC Priorities USA last month. The organization has reportedly been struggling to drum up donors, which isn’t surprising as Democrats have spent the past two years demonizing super PACs. Clearly, they hope Freeman’s donation will signal to wealthy liberals that it’s okay to support these groups.

But note Freeman’s statement out this morning:

“Pres. Obama has done a remarkable job in historically difficult circumstances. … I am proud to lend my voice … to those who defend him. Priorities USA Action is doing a great job of protecting the values I believe in. I am happy to help them and I hope others will join me.”

He wasn’t defending his donation as a necessary evil. Instead, he said he was “proud to lend [his] voice.” That’s an interesting choice in wording, considering Democrats have been mocking the idea that political spending is protected speech for the last two years.

But Freeman is right, and the Supreme Court has affirmed it. Political spending is a form of free expression. As Justice Antonin Scalia explained eloquently to CNN’s Piers Morgan last night, “You can’t separate speech from the money that facilitates the speech.”

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Politico reported this morning that Morgan Freeman donated $1 million to the pro-Obama super PAC Priorities USA last month. The organization has reportedly been struggling to drum up donors, which isn’t surprising as Democrats have spent the past two years demonizing super PACs. Clearly, they hope Freeman’s donation will signal to wealthy liberals that it’s okay to support these groups.

But note Freeman’s statement out this morning:

“Pres. Obama has done a remarkable job in historically difficult circumstances. … I am proud to lend my voice … to those who defend him. Priorities USA Action is doing a great job of protecting the values I believe in. I am happy to help them and I hope others will join me.”

He wasn’t defending his donation as a necessary evil. Instead, he said he was “proud to lend [his] voice.” That’s an interesting choice in wording, considering Democrats have been mocking the idea that political spending is protected speech for the last two years.

But Freeman is right, and the Supreme Court has affirmed it. Political spending is a form of free expression. As Justice Antonin Scalia explained eloquently to CNN’s Piers Morgan last night, “You can’t separate speech from the money that facilitates the speech.”

Scalia: You can’t separate speech from the money that facilitates the speech.

Morgan: Can’t you?

Scalia: It’s utterly impossible. Could you tell newspaper publishers you can only spend so much money in the publication of your newspaper?

Exactly. If you limit the amount of money that can be spent on speech, you are consequently limiting the speech. It’s true that some people have more to spend on this than others. But there are all kinds of inequalities when it comes to speech. Some people run newspapers. Some people have radio shows. Some people have prominent jobs that provide them with platforms to reach large audiences.

And then there are those who choose to spend their own money to express their voices on politics. Freeman apparently gets it. When will Senate Democrats figure it out?

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