Friday, August 05, 2011

EDITORIAL >>Dishonest Advertising

If you wondered about the destructive effects of the U.S. Supreme Court’s Citizens United decision, which allowed corporations and rich individuals and groups to secretly dump unlimited cash into “independent” political campaigns, some of the best evidence is surfacing here in central Arkansas. Last week, a shadow group called American Action Network ran the first huge newspaper ad attacking President Obama for trying to harm old people and praising Rep. Tim Griffin for defending them. Flyers carrying the same message will be arriving in seniors’ mail.

Griffin, like other vulnerable Republican congressmen, has taken some heat for voting for a radical plan to end the government Medicare program by privatizing it and shifting the costs to seniors and the disabled, starting with people who will reach Medicare age in 2021. The ads and flyers are supposed to reverse that impression of Griffin and 21 other right-wing congressmen and shift the blame to the president.

Beside a picture of Griffin, the ad carries the line: “Arkansas Seniors Can Count on Congressman Tim Griffin to Stand Up Against the Obama Medicare Plan.” The headline at the top of the ad says that President Obama has a Medicare plan to “balance the budget on the backs of seniors!” A picture of a stooped old man holding his back accompanies it.

That may sound counterintuitive to you. Isn’t Obama supposed to be the socialist who wants to spend all the taxpayers’ money on the elderly, the poor and society’s wastrels? But you tell us that he really wants to take away their benefits so that he can balance the budget?

The fact is Obama had no Medicare plan and, in particular, no plan to take away benefits from the elderly and disabled. But they can’t just make such stuff up, can they? There is an asterisk at the end of a sentence that says Obama’s Medicare plan would increase Medicare premiums, and that is how it would affect people’s benefits. To support the charge, the ad refers you in small type to an Internet website, which carries a long, murky “study” by the man who runs American Action Network, which purports to show how Medicare premiums would be raised “by as much as $208 per year.”

It turns out that the Medicare plan is not Obama’s at all but a bill by two Democrats who are the leading congressional champions of Medicare. It would require drug companies to give discounts for Medicare recipients on many high-cost drugs like they must do with Medicaid. In the debt-ceiling talks, there was some discussion of including that little budget-cutting measure in the big debt package that was being negotiated. The drug companies, naturally, opposed it, so Republicans did, too.

The little “study” argued that if the drug companies had to give discounts to the elderly on expensive brand-name drugs over the years, they would just shift the costs around and recover the money elsewhere. That would for some magical reason cause Medicare premiums to go up. It is the classic roundabout argument. Anything that is supposed to lower your costs will actually raise them. The argument boils down to this: If you force drug companies to sell their products more cheaply they will find a way to make even greater profits. So Obama is trying to give the drug companies bigger profits at the expense of seniors!

It is pure baloney, of course, but if you don’t follow the trail to the end the ads are convincing. People don’t like this black president with the Middle Eastern name, so they are willing to believe just about anything about him. Seniors are especially vulnerable, as the campaign against the health insurance reform bill in 2009 showed. The elderly were persuaded that “Obamacare,” as the Republicans called it, would slash their Medicare benefits when actually it improved benefits.

Who is paying for the ads for Griffin and the other 21 congressmen and who is responsible for the deceptions?

Not Griffin, of course. He can say he had nothing to do with them and his campaign treasury is not out a red cent. American Action Network came into being after the Citizens United decision paved the way for moneyed interests, including corporations, to spend boundless sums on political advertising as long as it was not coordinated with a candidate and did not specifically ask people to vote for him. It spent $25 million last fall for independent campaigns for Griffin and other Republican candidates for the Senate and House of Representatives.

All that is known about the group is its director and board of directors, made up of rich investors and corporate executives. From the list, you can guess that the money comes from Wall Street, pharmaceutical companies, tobacco companies and the oil and insurance industries. It has to be a guess because the donors do not have to be identified. It shares offices with Karl Rove’s consulting firm. Griffin, you may recall, worked for Rove in the Bush White House political office. Rove arranged for Bud Cummins, a loyal Republican, to be dismissed as U.S. attorney for the eastern district of Arkansas to make room for Griffin, who needed to burnish his résumé for a coming congressional race.

The group revealed last month that it was spending $1 million on an early strike for 22 Republicans who had voted for the radical Medicare overhaul. Polls show it was a highly unpopular vote. One Republican has already taken a beating at the polls over the vote, and Griffin’s office has received calls from angry seniors.

So how do you turn the villain into the prince? You pit him against the hugely unpopular (in the South) president, even if you have to manufacture the issue. But, you know, it works, and Griffin doesn’t get his fingerprints on it. What a system. Thanks, Supreme Court!