WaPo Gives Three Pinocchios to Dem Dark Money Group's Collins Attack

New ad 'misattributes and misquotes the source material'

Sen. Susan Collins (R-ME) / Getty Images
August 19, 2019

The Washington Post fact-checker gave a new Democratic dark money ad targeting Sen. Susan Collins (R., Maine), who is up for reelection next year, three Pinocchios for claiming Collins put Social Security and Medicare "in jeopardy."

The 30-second "Trusted" ad, which was sponsored by Maine Momentum, a Democratic dark money group that has reserved at least $722,000 for advertising through January to "educate" voters about Collins, featured a man named David from North Yarmouth, Maine.

"I need Medicare to get by. But Senator Collins voted for a tax bill that puts Medicare and Social Security in jeopardy, but gives large corporations a big tax break," David said in the ad. "And then I heard the same corporations gave her over $5 million."

Fact-checker Glenn Kessler said in his analysis for the Washington Post "there is no dispute" that the Tax Cuts and Jobs Act (TCJA) included a major corporate tax cut but the ad's claim about Social Security and Medicare being "in jeopardy" is misleading.

To support its claim, the ad cited a November 2017 opinion piece on the Tax Policy Center website. Kessler said TPC is "widely respected" for their analysis, but noted that the ad cited a blog post by Melissa M. Favreault of the Urban Institute which reflected the "opinion of the author and not that of the Tax Policy Center, Urban Institute, or Brookings Institution."

"This was an opinion piece, and not a formal report of the Tax Policy Center," Favreault admitted. "It reflects my opinion, values, and priorities, and my perspective on the TCJA, but it is not TPC's view."

"In my view, engaging in deficit spending to prioritize (to a very large extent) the short-run needs of some of the most well-off members of society at a time when the economy was not in recession was a missed opportunity," Favreault told Kessler. "The tax cuts did not pay for themselves, so implicitly we left ourselves with less fiscal space for Social Security and Medicare."

Kessler went on to address the claim in the ad about corporations donating to Collins's campaign.

As for the donations from corporations, the ad cites the Center for Responsive Politics. Corporations cannot contribute directly to candidates, but do so via political action committees. Indeed, the CRP shows that Collins has received nearly $7.3 million over the course of her career from business-associated PACs. But the contributions from individual company PACs are not that large. Blue Cross/Blue Shield tops the list with a total of $76,000, followed by General Dynamics ($45,000), Ernst & Young (almost $42,000), Deloitte LLP ($40,000) and FedEx Corp. ($47,500).

Kessler concluded the ad was "cleverly crafted," but in citing an opinion piece it "misattributes and misquotes the source material to make its claim seem more authoritative than it is." He also said there is "no evidence" to support the claim about corporate PAC money swaying Collins's vote.

"But here's the problem: Just because the TCJA is deficit-financed does not mean benefits in the specific safety-net programs mentioned in the ad would be cut to achieve balance. All things being equal, Congress just as easily could reduce spending on any other program," Kessler wrote. "In fact, given the politics involved, Social Security and Medicare might be the last programs to be cut. Moreover, Collins affirmatively took a step to protect Medicare from budget cuts — a fact unacknowledged by the ad."

The Post describes the three Pinocchio rating as "significant factual error and/or obvious contradictions." The Post continues, "this gets into the realm of 'mostly false.' But it could include statements which are technically correct (such as based on official government data) but are so taken out of context as to be very misleading."