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A Project of The Annenberg Public Policy Center

Halter’s Ad: Misleading Senior Voters

In the final week of Arkansas’ June 8 runoff campaign for the Democratic Senate nomination, Lt. Gov. Bill Halter is running a misleading ad against Sen. Blanche Lincoln that accuses her of "cutting Social Security" and threatening to cut Medicare and Social Security in the future. For sure, there are differences between the two candidates. Lincoln is a strong supporter of reducing the deficit, and is on record as wanting to find "greater efficiencies" in entitlement programs, including Medicare and Social Security. But nothing she has done has resulted in cuts to Social Security benefits, and the Halter campaign provided no evidence to support that she wants to cut Medicare and Social Security benefits. The ad splices parts of two different Lincoln quotes together to leave a false impression.

The June 1 ad, called “Pauline,” shows Pauline Wildman contrasting Halter and Lincoln’s positions on Social Security. Wildman, who the ad says is a 75-year-old Arkansan, says: “When Bill Halter was in charge of Social Security, he fought to protect it from cuts. But Blanche Lincoln is different.” It shows Lincoln at a debate saying, “There are reasonable spending cuts that can be made … Medicare and Social Security …”  This leaves the impression that she wants to cut Medicare and Social Security.

But her words were taken out of context. The Halter campaign spliced together two clips from the same debate to create this illusion. Lincoln was talking about how to reduce the national debt when she talked about “reasonable spending cuts;” she did not say what she would cut. She then went to say “you can’t do it all with spending cuts,” and began to speak about finding “greater efficiencies” in entitlement programs, such as Medicare, Social Security and Medicaid. Lincoln’s full statement reads:

Lincoln, May 14: Well, I think the most critical thing that we have to look at in terms of eliminating the debt is a lot of what we saw President Clinton do and that was creating a balance of where we deal with this debt. Obviously there are reasonable spending cuts that can be made and I think that we should look at that. The president’s offered us some and certainly as we move through the budgets, as well as the appropriations, we’ll look for those spending cuts. But you can’t do it all with spending cuts, and they’re exactly right. You have to look at mandatory spending programs like Medicare, and Social Security, and Medicaid. Those are the largest parts of the spending measures that we have. And so making sure what we did in health care reform, which was to create greater efficiency in health care delivery, making sure that we added 10 years of solvency to the Medicare Trust Fund, but we did so by making greater efficiencies and bringing down the cost of health care. We saved about a $132 billion in the first 10 years and almost a trillion in the second 10 years. And yes, we do have to balance the tax code; there’s no doubt that we could do a better job, particularly in the largest line item of the tax code and that is the exclusion for health insurance and for health care. So there’s multiple ways we can do it and I hope we’ll look at all of them."

In fact, Lincoln stated numerous times throughout that same debate that she was against cutting Social Security benefits.

Lincoln, May 14: “I did not support a decrease in benefits to Social Security benefits. That was one of the things he (Halter) commented in the last debate that he did … I don’t propose to balance the budget by decreasing Social Security benefits.”

Lincoln, May 14: “I do not support reductions in Social Security’s current guaranteed benefits. I think there are other ways to create efficiencies in Social Security and I think we must.

The ad then asserts Lincoln “supports more tax cuts for millionaires, while cutting Social Security.” It is true that Lincoln in 2002 voted to permanently repeal the estate tax. And as we’ve said before, it’s true that repealing the estate tax “would benefit mainly the very wealthy.” So, did she support more tax cuts for millionaires? Yes. But did she do this “while cutting Social Security” as the ad claims? No. The Halter campaign supported this by citing a yes vote by Lincoln on an amendment 16 years ago (when she was Blanche Lambert). First of all, the amendment was overwhelmingly rejected, so the cuts never happened. Even if the amendment had passed and become law, the cuts were contingent upon certain conditions being met. Also, the amendment would have reduced spending across all entitlement programs, not just Social Security. Finally, the use of the word “while” – in the phrase, “she supports more tax cuts for millionaires, while cutting Social Security” – is misleading. The votes happened six years apart, not at the same time.

Halter has a history of support for Social Security. Then-President Bill Clinton appointed Halter deputy commissioner of Social Security in October 1999. He also served as acting commissioner for two months, from January to March of 2001. However, the ad goes too far in saying that Halter "fought to protect it from cuts." In documents provided to us, the Halter campaign backs up this claim with various statements from Halter asserting the importance of Social Security — such as an April 22, 2001 quote attributed to him in the Lewiston Morning Tribune that described Social Security as “the most important income security program in American history.” But stating general support for Social Security is not exactly fighting to protect it from cuts. The Halter campaign also cites Halter’s criticism of then-President George W. Bush’s proposal to “privatize Social Security.”  However, we’ve already clarified that Bush’s plan would not have cut Social Security benefits and criticism alone does not qualify as fighting for protection. Halter has a case to make that there are differences between the two candidates. He could have stressed the ambiguous nature of the efficiencies that Lincoln wants to pursue in her next term. But the ad goes beyond that by manipulating her words to make the unsupported claim that she will cut benefits.


– Melissa Siegel