Does Michele Bachmann stand for fair and accurate advertising?


And does a politician who aired and condoned slimy ads on her own behalf forfeit any of her right to complain when she doesn’t like the ads run against her?

As you may have heard, U.S. Rep. Michele Bachmann is asking local TV stations to yank an Americans United for Change 30-second spot, currently running on Twin Cities stations that pounds her for supporting Pres. Bush’s veto of the SCHIP bill. A letter to the stations from the chief of her congressional staff (but written on Bachmann for Congress stationery) calls the ad “false” and “stunningly deceptive.”

Her particular complaint is pretty lame. The ad says that “Bush and Bachmann would rather send half a trillion dollars to Iraq than spend a fraction of that here at home to keep our kids healthy.”

Bachmann’s argument is that only 20 percent of the funds for the Iraq war have been appropriated since she took office. But Bachmann has supported the war since its inception, and has never uttered peep one of complaint about its cost or about other things that could be done with the money. This argument has been well-ventilated in the blogosphere this week.

As an ink-stained history nerd who covered Bachmann’s successful 2006 race for Congress against Patty Wetterling, and who wrote regular ad-watch pieces on my former Strib blog, the Big Question, my particular contribution is to review her position on false and deceptive advertising in general, which is, in short:

Bachmann likes false and deceptive advertising when she pays for it, or when it is paid for by others on her behalf.

Case study #1: Talibanizing Patty Wetterling.

This misleading ad, paid for and created by the Bachmann campaign, used guilt by association, combined with statements taken out of context, to mislead viewers into thinking that Wetterling favored deep cuts in defense spending and negotiations with the Taliban.

Wetterling said she favored neither. Bachmann had no evidence that she favored either.

The ad highlighted a peace group, the Council for a Livable World, that supported Wetterling and that, in 1999, had published a list of recommended defense spending cuts. In 2006 when the ad ran, Livable World no longer advocated overall reductions in defense spending (in part because many of the obsolete programs it had identified earlier had indeed been cut).

In the key and most misleading moment in the Bachmann ad, a picture of Wetterling appeared onscreen while the announcer said: “One of this group’s leaders even said we should negotiate with the Taliban.”

When challenged to produce backup, the Bachmann campaign directed me to an October 2001 op-ed in the Boston Globe by Harvard Professor Roger Fisher, a member of Livable World’s board, an expert on negotiations and conciliation and author of the best-seller “Getting to Yes: Negotiating Agreement Without Giving in.”

The op-ed, titled “Getting to Yes with the Taliban,” was published after 9/11 and before the U.S. invasion of Afghanistan. At that time, President Bush had publicly warned the Taliban leaders that unless they promptly turned over Osama bin Laden and other Al Qaida leaders and closed the Al Qaida training bases in Afghanistan, the United States would take military action.

Summarizing from my 2006 “Is That a Fact?” piece:

Fisher wrote that if the United States really wanted the Taliban to comply, it would be useful to establish high-level but unofficial contacts so that the United States could signal more precisely what the Taliban needed to do to avoid war. For example:

‘How many of bin Laden’s people do they have to turn over with him? How many training camps must be closed? How will we verify that this is done?’

Fisher didn’t suggest the U.S. should compromise on these demands, but should put the Taliban in a position to comply, if they chose to, without fear that the U.S. had other demands up its sleeve.

You could call that advocating negotiations with Taliban if you want. But to get from that reasonable suggestion by one member of a 30-member board of an organization whose PAC had given $5,000 to Wetterling to an ad implying that Wetterling was soft on the Taliban is a deception so gross that it should seriously undermine Bachmann’s standing to complain about unfairnesses in ads targeting her.

At the time, Bachmann defended the ad, and throughout the campaign condoned a serious of scurrilous fliers by the National Republican Congressional Committee alleging that:

Case Study #2

Wetterling was a proponent of shipping U.S. jobs overseas (based on the fact that Wetterling’s family owned mutual funds that held stock in some of the companies listed on Lou Dobbs’ list of companies that outsource jobs or employ cheap overseas labor.) p.s. Bachmann also owned mutual funds with stocks on Dobb’s no-no list p.p.s. Dobbs himself said the ad made a ridiculous use of his list and that he’d be surprised if anyone knew what stocks were held by the mutual funds they own.

Case Study #3

Wetterling was a bad citizen who “failed to vote in 2000, 2002 and 2004 elections.” In fact, Wetterling had voted in the general election in each of those years. In 2000 and 2002, before she became involved in partisan politics, Wetterling hadn’t voted in the primaries. In 2004, (when she first sought election as a DFLer) Wetterling voted in both the primary and general elections. The NRCC claimed (although it acknowledged there was no record of this) that Wetterling had not voted in a presidential preference straw poll taken at precinct caucuses.

Bachmann declined any responsibility for the fliers (on grounds that the NRCC wrote them, and she was barred, by law from coordinating with the NRCC). She also declined to comment on their accuracy or fairness.

After writing about those fliers, I covered a press conference at which Ken Mehlman, chairman of the Republican National Committee appeared with Bachmann and testified on her behalf. The NRCC is an arm of the RNC. So I took the two fliers to the event and gave them to Mehlman and Bachmann, and asked him at least to say whether these fliers were fair or accurate or promoted the goal of an informed electorate.

In one of those don’t-know-whether-to-laugh-or-cry moments, Bachmann repeated her claim that the fliers had nothing to do with her, and Mehlman explained that even though the NRCC was an arm of the RNC, of which he was chairman, he also bore no responsibility for the fliers and was prohibited by law from knowing anything about their creation.

By the way, during the campaign, the Wetterling campaign and her party allies aired ads that were at least as nasty and misleading, including one by Wetterling suggesting that Bachmann, a fanatical tax-cutter, favored a massive tax increase and another by the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee claiming that Bachmann had voted against tougher sentences for sex criminals (she favored an even tougher crime bill than the one she voted against).