A Project of The Annenberg Public Policy Center

‘Panicked’ Dems Run False Ad in NYC


A Democratic ad falsely claims Republican House candidate Bob Turner would cut Social Security benefits for seniors, something Turner says he would not do.

The truth is that Turner has taken contradictory stands, saying he’d preserve both Social Security and Medicare “as they are” for anyone age 55 or over — but also calling for massive budget cuts, elimination of the capital gains tax, and repeal of the new health care law which, among other things, improved Medicare’s coverage of prescription drugs. But this ad goes too far in claiming Turner explicitly favors cutting Social Security benefits for gray-haired senior citizens, which is not true.

The ad by the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee is one of three new ads attacking Turner in New York City, where Democrats — described by the New York Times as “panicked” — are in danger of losing a Sept. 13 special election to fill the seat left vacant by the resignation of Anthony Weiner in a sex scandal. Some polls show Turner leading the Democratic candidate David Weprin in a district once considered solidly Democratic. The DCCC, a Democratic “super PAC” and Weprin’s own campaign are all running TV ads in the expensive New York City market.

The DCCC ad is right on target when it says Turner “supports tax loopholes for corporations” and shows a brief video clip of Turner stating, “I never met a loophole I didn’t like.” That was indeed Turner’s response at a recent candidate forum when he was asked asked to name one corporate loophole he would like to close. It’s also on solid ground when it says Turner would “raise the retirement age” to qualify for Social Security. Turner has indeed said that’s “one of the easy” changes that need to be made to improve the system’s finances.

But the ad veers into deceptive territory when it claims that Turner “would cut benefits from Medicare and Social Security,” while showing gray-haired senior citizens to whom these cuts would presumably apply. Turner says he would not do that. He states on his website “issues” page (emphasis added):

Bob Turner; “Social Security and Medicare”: I believe that these programs should be preserved as they are for those in or near retirement and that we should work to strengthen and preserve them for our children and future generations. I oppose efforts to privatize or bankrupt either. I would work with members of both parties to reach a solution that will meet our obligations on both of these programs.

In news interviews he has said he would exempt those currently age 55 or older from any overhaul of Social Security or Medicare. So the seniors pictured in the DCCC ad would not be affected.

When we asked the DCCC to explain, a spokesman pointed to an Aug. 26 New York Post story that was based on an interview with Turner. It says Turner would “push the federal government to rein in the deficit even if that means touching the ‘third rail’ of politics — cutting spending on entitlement programs such as Medicare and Social Security.” The Post also writes that Turner said “an increase in Medicare co-payments also has to be considered.”

We agree that Turner’s support for increasing Medicare co-payments would amount to a cut in Medicare benefits (though not in Social Security). But Turner made clear in a debate with Weprin Aug. 31 that such an increase would apply to “future retirees.” So that doesn’t contradict his promise to preserve both programs “as they are” for current beneficiaries. We found no written transcript of the debate, but Turner’s full remarks on his Medicare position start at nine minutes into a video of the debate posted on YouTube. “We may have to do a number of things for those in the younger category,” he said, but added that Social Security and Medicare would be “the same deal you have right now” for those now 55 or older. And just “cutting spending” on either program doesn’t necessarily mean a cut in benefits. That’s a point we’ve made consistently, even when Republicans were falsely accusing Democrats of favoring Medicare benefit cuts last year, based on reductions in overall spending called for by the new health care law.

DCCC spokesman Jesse Ferguson told us that the “most iron clad evidence” that Turner would cut benefits is this, from the Post article:

New York Post, Aug. 31: Asked if the eligibility age should be raised for people under 55, Turner said, “That’s one of the easy ones.”

But the DCCC ad pictures people who appear to be well over age 55, and thus would not be affected. The ad’s strong visual message is that Turner would cut benefits for current beneficiaries, not just those who retire in the future.

It’s fair to point to contradictions in Turner’s position, as the DCCC does in its response. And it can be argued fairly that Turner can’t deliver overall budget cuts of the size he favors while also holding benefits harmless. But if that’s the case, who’s to say what he would do if forced to choose between smaller budget cuts or breaking his promise to seniors? Flatly accusing Turner of advocating Social Security benefit cuts that he says he opposes is just a falsification of his position.

Other Ads

The ad being run by candidate Weprin makes its case more honestly, saying “The New York Times warns Turner would force a reduction in benefits for those on Social Security and Medicare.” And the Times did indeed make that argument.

In an Aug. 30 editorial endorsing Weprin, the Times said:

New York Times editorial, Aug. 30: Mr. Turner argues that the federal budget needs to be cut by as much as a third. He also wants to lower taxes, especially on capital gains. He insists that that would not mean reducing benefits for those on Medicare and Social Security. That would take a magician, not a businessman.

And an ad being run by the House Majority PAC at a cost of more than $100,000 is also accurate. It features an actor portraying an 18th century American patriot who attacks Turner’s “Tea Party” credentials by saying Turner “would reduce the taxes of the wealthiest among thee, while making thy elders pay more for medicine.”

The statement about taxes is true; Turner wrote in a June 8 opinion piece in the conservative National Review that he would “[s]lash capital-gains taxes down to zero.” That would favor “the wealthiest” along with many who may not consider themselves rich, but are affluent enough to have profits from selling a rental property or stocks owned outside of tax-deferred retirement accounts, for example.

And the carefully worded statement about making “elders” pay “more for medicine” is also accurate. Despite Turner’s promise to preserve Medicare as is for current beneficiaries, he also favors repeal of the new health care law, which among other things phases out a gap in coverage for Part D, which covers prescription drugs. Currently, seniors who fall into the gap (the so-called “doughnut hole”) qualify for a 50 percent discount on brand-name drugs, for example. For generic drugs purchased by those in the gap, Medicare now pays 7 percent of the cost and will eventually pay 75 percent in 2020.  Thus, the effect of repealing he new law would be to force many seniors with high expenses for medicine to pay more than they do currently.

-Brooks Jackson