With 15 months to go before election day 2006, the National Republican Senatorial Committee unleashed an attack ad in West Virginia in an attempt to soften up Democratic Senator Robert Byrd for an eventual GOP challenger. Byrd responded immediately with a TV ad of his own.
Both ads contained shopworn distortions. The NRSC ad accused Byrd of voting “against body armor” and “for higher taxes for the middle class” – as misleading now as when Bush used the same attacks against Kerry last year. And Byrd responded by claiming he was being attacked by “out-of-state special interests” with an “agenda” that includes “tax breaks for companies that ship our jobs overseas.” In fact, the ad was run by a political party and not by a “special interest,” and the tax breaks Byrd mentions have been in place for decades, even when Democrats had a majority in the Senate and Byrd was their leader. Few economists see those tax breaks as a serious drain on US jobs.
The NRSC ad is the first TV spot run by any national party organization in the 2006 elections, which are still 15 months away. Neither ad gets any points for originality: both ads contain recycled distortions. The NRSC announced its ad Aug 1 and said it would run for at least two weeks in West Virginia at a cost of “tens of thousands” of dollars. Byrd’s ad went up Aug. 2, and his website appealed for $55,000 to fund the response.
National Republican Senatorial Committee TV Ad: “Change”
Announcer: 1952… war in Korea and Robert Byrd went to Congress. A lot’s changed since then.
Byrd voted for soldiers in the 50s. Today, against body armor in the war on terror.
(Text on screen: H.R. 5969, July 2, 1953; CQ Vote #400, 10/17/2000)
Then, he stood with working families. Today he votes higher taxes for the middle class.
(Text on screen: H.R. 8363, 2/7/1964; CQ Vote #179, 5/23/2003; CQ Vote #247, 8/6/1993)
Then, Byrd protected our flag. Now, he votes to allow flag burning.
(Text on screen: The Washington Post, 3/29/2000; CQ Vote #48, 3/29/2000)
Senator Byrd. We all agree he’s changed. But is it good for West Virginia?
The NRSC is responsible for the content of this ad.
(Text on screen: Paid For By National Republican Senatorial Committee And Not Authorized By Any Candidate Or Candidate’s Committee; www.NRSC.org)
Body Armor, Again
The NRSC ad recycles a misleading claim that Republicans used repeatedly against John Kerry in 2004, saying Byrd voted “against body armor in the war on terror” in contrast to his votes “for soldiers” earlier in his career.
What Byrd and Kerry actually voted against, of course, was an enormous $87-billion supplemental appropriation in 2003 that the Bush administration sought to finance military operations and reconstruction in Iraq and Afghanistan. The $87-billion spending bill contained a Pentagon request for $300 million for “best-grade” ceramic body armor for all troops in Iraq, many of whom had been sent with older-style armor. As we pointed out in an article last year, those funds for body armor constituted only one-third of one percent of the entire bill. There was no specific vote for or against the $300 million for body armor.
Byrd says he voted against the $87 billion measure because it contained $18.4 billion to rebuild Iraq and not because of the $300 million for body armor. He says he has voted for additional body armor and armoring of Humvees on several other occasions, which the record shows is true. For example, only last month he was on the winning side of a 100-0 vote favoring more spending on armored, wheeled vehicles for the Army and Marines. (Vote 199, 25 July 2005) And he was also one of those who supported an amendment last year to require the Pentagon to reimburse troops or their families for body armor or other equipment purchased for use in Iraq or Afghanistan. (Vote 112, 14 June 2004)
Taxes? “Higher” Than What?
The NRSC ad also claims Byrd “votes higher taxes for the middle class,” which is craftily worded and quite misleading. The NRSC cites votes by Byrd in 2001 and 2003, but those were not votes to raise taxes they were votes against Bush’s proposed tax cuts. That might make taxes “higher” than Bush wanted them but not higher than they were at the time. Furthermore, those cuts delivered more relief for upper-income taxpayers than for the “middle class.”
In fact, the ad ignores Byrd’s vote for the “Working Families” tax relief act which Bush signed last October, extending several tax reductions for middle-income families. (Vote 188, 23 Sep 2004).These included keeping the per-child tax credit at $1,000, rather than allowing it to revert to $500 per child as had been scheduled.
The NRSC cites only one vote by Byrd that was actually in favor of raising taxes. That one wasn’t “today,” it was a dozen years ago – the 1993 Clinton deficit-reduction measure, which also contained spending cuts. That 1993 measure did raise taxes on the middle class but only very slightly. It raised the gasoline tax by 4.3 cents per gallon. It also increased the amount of Social Security benefits that are subject to taxation, but only for those making $44,000 a year for a married couple. The rest of the increase was focused almost exclusively on the highest-earning one percent of households.
Friends of Robert C. Byrd Committee TV Ad: “Truth”
Announcer: Out-of-state special interests are running false attack ads against our Senator, Robert Byrd.
Their agenda? Privatize Social Security and tax breaks for companies that ship our jobs overseas.
Sgt. Jared Towner : I’m Sergeant Jared Towner, and I served in Iraq.
(Text on screen: Sgt. Jared Towner, Parkersburg, WV, 1092nd Combat Engineer Battalion)
Senator Byrd has been fighting for us, bringing jobs to West Virginia, funding schools and hospitals, protecting our flag, and supporting our troops.
(Text on screen: Senator Byrd: Jobs for West Virginia, Funding Schools, Funding Hospitals)
Robert Byrd: I’m Robert Byrd, and I approve this ad because the people of West Virginia deserve the truth.
Byrd’s counter-attack also makes claims that don’t stand up to factual scrutiny.
Byrd’s ad says “out-of-state special interests” are attacking him falsely, while showing a video snippet of the NRSC ad. But the Republican party can’t accurately be called a “special interest” any more than the Democratic party could be. The term is most commonly used to describe lobbyists for narrow economic concerns, and sometimes for one-issue ideological groups as well. Broad-based political parties just don’t fit the definition.
For example, Princeton University’s Worldnet defines “special interest” as “an individual or group who are concerned with some particular part of the economy and who try to influence legislators or bureaucrats to act in their favor.” Byrd is way off the mark here.
Tax Breaks for Outsourcing?
The Byrd ad also claims that the “agenda” of those attacking him includes “tax breaks for companies that ship our jobs overseas.” We dealt with this misleading claim at length last year when Kerry and other Democrats were using it against Bush. In fact, nobody is pushing to enact any such tax breaks.
It is true that US-based companies already have a tax incentive to use foreign-earned income to build factories overseas rather than bring profits back to the US to be taxed at higher US rates. However, that has been the case for decades – as long as the US has taxed corporate income, in fact. It was true when Bill Clinton was President, and it was true when Byrd himself was the Senate Democratic leader from 1977 to 1989. And, for most of that time, Democrats had the majority.
Furthermore, as we said a year ago when Kerry was using this line of attack, the tax break actually has little effect on US jobs. Even those experts who support a change in the tax code say multinational businesses build plants in other countries mainly to take advantage of lower wages and to be near their global customers, too, not just for tax reasons.
And speaking of symbolic issues . . .
The NRSC ad claims Byrd votes “to allow flag burning.” This mischaracterizes his position and record. It is true that Byrd voted in 2000 against proposing an amendment to the US Constitution that would give Congress the power to prohibit the physical desecration of the U.S. flag. That measure needed a 2/3 majority to pass, and Byrd was among 37 senators voting against it, ensuring its defeat. But voting not to amend the Constitution isn’t the same as voting “to allow flag burning,” which is already allowed by Supreme Court decisions. Among the reasons Byrd gave at the time for his vote was that “flag burning, though loathsome , is hardly pervasive enough to warrant amending the Constitution.”
In his own ad, Byrd says he is “protecting our flag.” It is true that he co-sponsored a bill last month that would make it a federal crime to desecrate the flag, but only if it is done “with the primary purpose and intent to incite or produce imminent violence or a breach of the peace,” which would be a hard thing to prove and wouldn’t cover the simple burning of the flag as a protest. That bill is pending.
If these two ads are representative of what’s to come in the next 15 months, we’ll be busy here at FactCheck.org.
Congressional Record, 29 March 2000: S1858
S.1370, “To provide for the protection of the flag of the United States, and for other purposes,” introduced 1 July 2005.
Senate Roll Call Votes 108th Congress – 1st Session S. 1689 (Emergency Supplemental Appropriations for Iraq and Afghanistan Security and Reconstruction Act, 2004) Vote #400 17 Oct. 2003.
Copyright 2005 Annenberg Public Policy Center of the University of Pennsylvania
Judgments expressed are those of FactCheck.org’s staff, not the Annenberg Center