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Reality Check: National political ads jab ethics, health care

10:56 PM, Sep 24, 2012   |    comments
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Four closely watched congressional races are in the Sacramento region this fall, and all have attracted a national blitz of TV ads funded by outside political action committees - ads where a dash of truth is often stretched and twisted into a political weapon.

Our Reality Check series took a deep dive into current ads targeting both candidates in the 10th congressional district, Democrat Jose Hernandez and Republican Jeff Denham. Both feature a blend of personal and policy attacks, and both rely on a healthy dose of political spin.

"Meet your neighbor Jose Hernandez, who moved here just to run for Congress," says the narrator of the ad paid for by the American Action Network, a SuperPAC allied with national GOP leaders. The ad goes on to jab the first-time Democratic candidate for a tax lien on a family business in Texas, and then seeks to link him - via his support for President Barack Obama's health care law - to assertions that the law will result in deep cuts to Medicare.

Our analysis of the personal attacks in this ad concludes that there's truth wrapped in a lot of political spin, and here's why: Hernandez is not the only candidate in the race who's faced questions about his residency or his unpaid taxes. The incumbent, Rep. Jeff Denham, has lived in the region longer, but has still faced questions about his residency both in the new district and in how he and his family split their time between the Central Valley and Washington, D.C. And while Hernandez did have a tax bill unpaid - what his campaign spokesman calls a mistake - Denham also had to scramble at one point to pay a bill that was overdue.

The bottom line: it's up to the voters to decide whether these issues matter. But if they're relevant and revelatory for one guy, then they have to be for the other guy, too.

The anti-Denham ad, paid for by the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee (DCCC), uses a familiar criticism: a politician who takes perks. The ad criticizes the GOP incumbent for gifts and a salary increase taken while in the state Senate. The accusations are accurate, but lacking context and again relying on political spin. Then state senator Denham's 2009 state disclosure form (the last he filed) does disclose gifts, but not in an amount that seems excessive compared to other legislators of that year - from both parties. And while Denham did get a pay raise - in 2007 - so, too, did almost everyone in the Legislature (very few turned it down). Even so, legislators saw their pay cut in 2009, which seems to make the issue moot.

On the policy front, both ads repeat what are now becoming national talking points... and ones that distort the truth about both the federal health care law and Republican efforts to write their own budget plan. The GOP distortions on health care were the focus of our previous segment on ads from this race, and fail to make any distinction between a reduction in spending growth versus an actual cut in spending.

The Democratic accusations against Denham, and his vote for the GOP budget plan, are also laden with political spin. The ad uses what's become a mantra for Democratic attack ads this fall: a Republican who voted "to essentially end Medicare."

The quote is lifted from an April 2011 article in the Wall Street Journal, but it's conveniently truncated from this original sentence in the story: "The [GOP] plan would essentially end Medicare, which now pays most of the health-care bills for 48 million elderly and disabled Americans, as a program that directly pays those bills."

Translation: the story never said Republicans would end Medicare altogether - which is a Democratic political charge - but rather that the GOP plan would end the current system for how Medicare works. The former suggests no more help for seniors; the latter suggests a different kind of help.

The DCCC ad also says Republicans, and Denham in particular, would make seniors pay "$6400 more each year" for Medicare. But as national fact checking efforts have pointed out, those changes would not apply to current recipients, only those who turn 65 starting in 2022. The nice lady in the photo on the screen would not be impacted.

It's worth pointing out that these same accusations, in one form or another, are now also appearing in ads focused on the region's other congressional races. You can apply this analysis to those commercials, too, and you're unlikely to see these charges ease up any time before Election Day on November 6.


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