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A Project of The Annenberg Public Policy Center

$700 Billion Blame Game

Congressional candidates twist facts to pin the financial crisis on opponents.


We find House and Senate campaigns are taking liberties with the facts as they seek to assign blame for the nation’s financial mess.

  • A Democratic ad in Kentucky accuses Republican Senate Leader McConnell of conduct bordering on the criminal, but falsely accuses him of taking $4.4 million from "big banks."
  • A Republican ad in Pennsylvania claims Democratic House member Kanjorski sponsored a bill to "slash oversight" and "banks made millions." In fact, the bill never made it out of committee.
  • Many ads imply that mere acceptance of campaign donations from financial institutions is evidence of guilt. A Republican challenger’s ad in Kansas shows a suitcase full of cash and says "he failed to stop them," with no specifics offered.
  • A Democratic ad in Wisconsin assigns blame for the "bailout on Wall Street" to the Republican candidate, even though he’s a state legislator who had no role in Washington’s handling of the affair. It connects him with "failed Bush economic policies" on the grounds that he supports making tax cuts permanent.

These four are among many congressional ads that are trying to fault an opponent for the crisis.


Fingers are pointing in all directions as Democrats and Republicans try to blame each other for the financial crisis that led Congress to enact a $700 billion rescue package. Their ads are filled with images of suitcases full of cash, of Wall Street signs and of foreclosure notices. Democrats accuse their opponents of failing to regulate banks, and Republicans accuse theirs of going soft on two federally chartered mortgage agencies. Each side accuses the other of being influenced by campaign donations.

We’ve said before that no one individual or political party is solely responsible for the economic crisis. But each side tries to make blame a simple matter, even at the expense of the facts.

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DSCC Ad: "Wild"

Announcer: Some places it would be considered a crime, but not in Washington. Wall Street’s big banks gave Mitch McConnell $4.4 million for his campaigns, and he fought for less regulation of Wall Street. McConnell opened the gate and Wall Street went wild. And now, our entire economy is at risk. Maybe it’s time we bring Mitch McConnell back to the corral. The Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee is responsible for the content of this advertising. [/TET] 

Hate to Regulate?

Ads from the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee have targeted at least two incumbent Republican senators for accepting contributions from the financial sector while fighting for "less regulation" of Wall Street.

One such ad tells us that "Wall Street’s big banks gave Mitch McConnell $4.4 million for his campaigns." But that’s not true. According to the Center for Responsive Politics, Sen. McConnell of Kentucky has received $4.4 million in contributions from the financial, insurance and real estate sectors – a much broader group than "Wall Street’s big banks."

As evidence for its claim that McConnell "fought for less regulation of Wall Street" and that he "opened the gate and Wall Street went wild," the ad cites McConnell’s vote for the Gramm-Leach-Bliley Act. But that law wasn’t what caused the meltdown. We examined that legislation in our previous report, ultimately noting that "economists on both sides of the political spectrum have suggested that the act has probably made the crisis less severe than it might otherwise have been."

As for the ad’s assertions that in "some places" McConnell’s acceptance of campaign contributions from the financial industry and his actions in the Senate "would be considered a crime": Perhaps so, but by that standard practically any House or Senate member of either party could be called a criminal just for taking donations from groups whose interests they support. In the U.S., that’s perfectly legal.

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Lou Barletta for Congress Ad Attacking Paul Kanjorski

Announcer: Paul Kanjorski pocketed millions in contributions from his friends at Fannie Mae, Freddie Mac, and other banks. Then Kanjorski sponsored a bill to slash oversight on the banking industry. His friends at the banks made millions. Now, after they’ve sucked up all of the money, Kanjorski wants you to bail his rich friends out. Kanjorski, millions for him and his friends taken out of our pockets.

Lou Barletta: I’m Lou Barletta and I approve this message.


‘Millions’ from ‘Banks’

Republicans, for their part, are linking Democrats to a more specific couplet of culprits: the Federal National Mortgage Association ("Fannie Mae") and the Federal Home Loan Mortgage Corporation ("Freddie Mac"). For example, in Pennsylvania’s 11th congressional district, challenger Lou Barletta released an ad saying his Democratic opponent, incumbent Rep. Paul Kanjorski, "pocketed millions in contributions from his friends at Fannie Mae, Freddie Mac and other banks." That’s false. The total isn’t "millions."

To back up its claim, the ad shows on screen an article from the Wilkes Barre Times Leader. But the article actually reported that Kanjorski has received "$96,000 in campaign donations from mortgage buyers Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac since 1989."

On its Web site, the Barletta campaign states that Kanjorski has received $2.7 million since 1989 – "millions," if you will. But to get to that total the campaign lumps together "the subprime mortgage, banking and insurance industries and realtors." And of course, real estate agents and insurance companies are not "banks."

The ad goes on to say that "Kanjorski sponsored a bill to slash oversight on the banking industry. His friends at the banks made millions." Banks may have made money, but not with any help from Kanjorski’s bill. The 2005 Ney-Kanjorski bill that the ad refers to was introduced but didn’t even make it out of committee.

The ad shows a headline saying the bill "opens the door to predatory lenders"; in fact, it contained uniform national standards aimed at curbing abusive lending practices.  According to the Congressional Research Service summary of the proposed bill, it would have set new "requirements for higher-cost mortgages" among other provisions. However, it was panned by the Center for Responsible Lending, a nonpartisan group "dedicated to protecting homeownership and family wealth by working to eliminate abusive financial practices." The group preferred an alternative bill and criticized Kanjorski’s measure on grounds that the new federal rules he proposed were weaker than some of the state rules it would replace. But while Kanjorski’s measure might have "slashed regulation" in some states, it would have increased it elsewhere.

In any event, the implication that a bill that never passed helped banks "suck up all the money" is wrong.

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Nick Jordan Ad: "The Truth"

Nick Jordan: I’m Nick Jordan and I approve this message.

Announcer: Financial crisis, meltdown on Wall Street. How did it happen? Ask Dennis Moore. For 10 years, Moore sat on the committee responsible for holding Wall Street accountable. Moore failed to stop them, but he did take their money. Nearly $2 million in campaign cash. Now he’s bailing them out. Moore gets $2 million, they get $700 billion, we get the bill. Dennis Moore, he’s failed us all. [/TET]

Contributions = Guilt

The crudest strategy is to imply guilt for the financial mess through mere acceptance of donations from financial institutions, with no attempt to separate those that acted irresponsibly from those that didn’t, and with no attempt to specify exactly what bad act the target supposedly committed.

For example, in Kansas, Republican challenger Nick Jordan is attacking incumbent Democratic Rep. Dennis Moore with an ad showing a suitcase full of "campaign cash" from "Wall Street." It says, "Moore gets $2 million, they get $700 billion, we get the bill."

Moore’s sin? He "sat on the committee responsible for holding Wall Street accountable" and voted for the bailout measure.

Jordan takes liberties here. The $2 million figure isn’t just from "Wall Street." It counts all the donations that Moore has received over the past five elections from companies in finance, insurance and real estate, many of them far from major financial centers. In fact, Moore’s biggest donor in the current election is QC Holdings, a financial firm headquartered in Overland Park, Kan., that specializes in making payday loans and has nothing to do with the dicey home mortgages that caused the financial meltdown. QC executives and employees gave Moore $24,619 this election cycle, according to Opensecrets.org. Those donations were likely triggered by a bill to bring about tighter regulation of the payday loan industry. It was sponsored by four of Moore’s fellow Democrats and is sitting before the financial service committee of which he is a member.

The ad says Moore has "failed us all" but doesn’t say how. What would Jordan have done differently? He’s a state senator with a voting record that regularly gets ratings of 80 percent and higher from Kansas business groups, so it’s an open question how he would be tougher on "Wall Street" than his opponent has been.

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Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee Ad Attacking John Gard

Announcer: Our economy in crisis. Wisconsin families struggling. Taxpayers, $700 billion to bailout Wall Street. Why? The failed Bush economic policies supported by John Gard. Policies that put millionaires before working families, and save the best tax cuts for Wall Street investors. With George Bush finally leaving, Wisconsin’s ready to turn this economy around. Not let John Gard turn it back. The Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee is responsible for the content of this advertising. [/TET]

Blame Tax Cuts?

Another example of straining facts to assign blame comes from the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, in an ad attacking Republican House candidate John Gard in Wisconsin’s 8th district. It says that the reason for the economic crisis and the $700 billion bailout is "failed Bush economic policies supported by John Gard."

Actually, Gard is on record as being opposed to the bailout. (The incumbent, Democratic Rep. Steve Kagen, voted against it.) So, what economic policies did Gard support that made such a bailout necessary? 

Gard is the former speaker of the Wisconsin State Assembly, an important position to be sure, but not one that would give him much if any influence on Wall Street or the national finances. The DCCC tells us that the "policies" it refers to are Bush’s 2001 and 2003 tax cuts, which Gard has said he would extend permanently. So how could tax cuts cause lenders to make bad mortgages and home buyers to bid up prices too high?

Some Democrats, including Senate Whip Dick Durbin, have argued that the cuts were a "fundamental error" that "caused a chain reaction" and contributed to the crisis. But other Democrats including former President Bill Clinton have dismissed that notion. And even Durbin doesn’t blame tax cuts entirely; he also faulted former Federal Reserve Chairman Alan Greenspan for ignoring warnings that too many subprime mortgages posed a risk to the economy, and for failing to regulate them.

Earlier this month we said there was "ample blame to go around" for the financial crisis, and we listed nearly a dozen possible causes that various experts were citing. Tax cuts didn’t make the list.

Correction: We originally said Gard is the current speaker of the Wisconsin State Assembly. In 2006, he was succeeded by Republican Mike Huebsch.

And That’s Not All
Elsewhere, we found several ads that are also long on assigning blame, and short on evidence, including:
  • In Missouri, a Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee ad attacking Republican Rep. Sam Graves faulted him for "voting against cracking down on greedy CEOs." But it cites a vote against a Democratic sponsored amendment to a 2003 bill dealing with executive pensions. Its sponsor said it "addresses the underlying problems and causes of the Enron scandal" but made no mention of the subprime mortgage mess, which was still years away. The measure failed on a mostly party-line vote.
  • In New Hampshire, another DCCC ad attacked GOP Rep. Jeb Bradley for the very same vote, saying he "voted against cracking down on golden parachutes for greedy CEOs" and "helped get us in this mess," as though the 2003 vote had some connection.
  • In Kentucky, former Republican Rep. Anne Northup is trying to regain the seat she lost two years ago to Democratic Rep. John Yarmuth with an ad saying he supported "$700 billion for Wall Street CEOs." In fact, the money is not going to chief executives, and Democrats insisted on a provision in the package aimed at limiting executive pay at companies getting help.

—by Justin Bank


"Kanjo 7th in Money Received," The Times Leader (Wilkes Barre, PA), 21 Sept. 2008.

"Kanjorski’s greed at the heart of financial collapse," Lou Baretta Campaign Website, 15 Sept. 2008.

Downey, Kristin "Standards for Mortgage Lending Debated" Washington Post, 25 May 2005.

"The Ney-Kanjorski Bill: Replaces effective state protections against predatory lending with a weak federal standard," Center for Responsible Lending, 16 March 2005.

Jagannathan, Malavika. "Candidates stress political differences." Green Bay Post-Gazette, 27 Oct. 2006.