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The Gingrich Counterattack in Florida

Now comes the counterattack.

After weeks of taking it on the chin in Florida without throwing a punch, the Gingrich side has  finally begun to fight back with TV attack ads of its own.

Among the new ads is one from a pro-Gingrich super PAC that takes the personal attacks to a new level, suggesting Romney was associated personally with “illegal activity” in a massive Medicare fraud in the 1990s. The fact is Romney was never accused of wrongdoing in that case.

Another ad from the same group claims that Romney “thinks judges can overrule parents on abortions.” But it rips Romney’s words out of context. He was actually arguing against allowing 16- and 17-year-old girls to get abortions without consent of a parent.

When we posted our article on the Florida ad war on Jan. 26, the Gingrich counterattack had barely begun, and we promised we would review it later. This is that review. As we did with attack ads from Romney’s side, we offer our comments here on what’s accurate, what’s not, and what additional context voters might find useful.

Winning Our Future: ‘Think You Know Mitt?’

An ad from Winning Our Future, a pro-Newt Gingrich super PAC, claims that Romney “thinks judges can overrule parents on abortions.” That’s so far out of context it turns Romney’s words on their head. At the time, in 2002, Romney was actually arguing against giving 16- and 17-year-old girls a legal right to abortion without consent of either parent.

The ad uses material from Romney’s oft-cited Oct. 29, 2002 gubernatorial debate against Democrat Shannon O’Brien. Much has been made by Romney’s Republican opponents about his repeated insistence during that debate that “I am in favor of preserving and protecting a woman’s right to choose” — a position that Romney later changed during his time in office.

The Winning Our Future ad zeroes in on the issue of the need for teenage girls to get parental consent in order to get an abortion. The ad loops this quote from Romney (which comes about the 10:35 mark):

Romney, 2002: One must have the permission of one parent and if a parent doesn’t go along, one can go to a judge or justice to get that permission.

Based on that quote, the announcer in the ad concludes that Romney  “thinks judges can overrule parents on abortions.”

But that’s misleading and ignores the context of Romney’s comment. Leading up to it, Romney’s Democratic opponent, O’Brien, had just laid out her position in favor of lowering the age needed for parental consent from 18 to 16. She argued that the age of consent for sexual activity is 16, and that girls of that age ought to be allowed to make their own decisions about whether to get an abortion. She noted that under Massachusetts law, 16-year-old girls either needed one parent’s consent for an abortion, or — in cases of child abuse or family sexual abuse in which a child did not feel comfortable going to her parents — they could seek to go around the consent requirement if they got the approval of a judge. O’Brien argued girls at least 16 years old ought to be able to make that decision on their own, without the need for parental consent or a judge’s permission.

Romney disagreed.

Romney, 2002: I will not change any provisions of Massachusetts’ pro-choice laws. And with regards to this issue of age of consent, it is currently 18-years-old. If one wants to have an abortion younger than that, one must have the permission of one parent and if a parent doesn’t go along, one can go to a judge or justice to get that permission. And so far in Massachusetts history when a young woman has gone to a judge, not one single time has there been a denial of that permission. And so I am in favor of retaining our current law which is the age of consent remaining at 18.

Winning Our Future: ‘Blood Money Trailer’

In what may be its most savage attack so far on Romney, Winning Our Future began airing an ad the afternoon of Jan. 27 going after him for his association with a company that committed Medicare fraud while he was a director in the 1990s.

The ad is billed as a “trailer” for a mini-documentary called “Blood Money,” which was released that same day. The 60-second version is the featured video on WOF’s website. A version also popped up on a Tampa TV station, according to the Campaign Media Analysis Group, indicating it is part of WOF’s reputed $6 million Florida ad campaign for Gingrich.

This is the second time WOF has promoted a mini-documentary attacking Romney’s business record. We found the first such video, a 28-minute attack called “The King of Bain,” gave an often distorted and misleading picture of Romney’s years at the private equity firm.

This time the attack is focused on Romney’s role at Damon Corp., which was convicted of massive Medicare billing fraud that went on while Romney was a director.

The ad strains to imply falsely that Romney was guilty of criminal conduct. At one point the words “illegal activity” appear superimposed over Romney’s face. But the truth is that Romney was never implicated in any illegal activity.

There was massive Medicare billing fraud going on while Romney was a member of the board of the Damon Corp., which pleaded guilty in 1996, after Romney had left. The company paid a then-record $119 million fine for billing the federal health insurance program for unnecessary blood tests, according to a 2002 Boston Globe report. Romney personally collected $473,000 when Bain Capital, which Romney once headed, sold the Damon Corp., to Corning Inc. in 1993. According to prosecutors, the fraud was uncovered only after Corning bought the company.

For more on Romney and Damon Corp., see our Jan. 26 item, “Liberal Union Joins Attack on Romney in Florida.” As if to prove once again that politics indeed makes strange bedfellows, the American Federation of State County and Municipal Employees has been attacking Romney on the old Damon story in a 30-second attack ad on Florida stations.

Update, Jan. 29: The following ad appeared on the air in Florida about the time we were posting our original story. We are updating to include it.

Winning Our Future, ‘Blood Money Ad’

A second 30-second spot also attacks Romney for his role in Damon Corp. But it misleads by calling Romney “the boss” of Damon. Romney was not the chief executive of Damon; He was one member of the board of directors. The ad also says he “supervised” Damon, which is closer to the mark. Directors are supposed to oversee management’s actions.

Newt2012: ‘Trust’

Newt Gingrich’s campaign ad goes after Romney for raising “fees and taxes” in Massachusetts.

The ad says Romney “refused to support” the Bush tax cuts when he was governor, and that’s true. As we’ve reported before, Romney pointedly refused to endorse the Bush tax cuts in 2003, although he never publicly opposed them, either. The Boston Globe quoted an unnamed observer as saying that Romney told the state’s congressional delegation that he “won’t be a cheerleader” for tax cuts that he doesn’t agree with. According to this account, Romney added that he wouldn’t oppose Bush’s cuts either, because he “has to keep a solid relationship with the White House.” Romney now advocates maintaining the current rates set by the Bush cuts, and an overhaul of the tax system to bring about even lower rates and a broader base of taxation.

The ad also says Romney “increased fees and taxes by $700 million” as governor. Romney never raised personal income taxes, but he did increase increase state revenues by hundreds of millions of dollars by raising fees and eliminating corporate tax preferences. The exact amount is disputed, however.

We reported on this a number of times in 2008, when Romney’s GOP primary opponents kept bringing it up. It’s true that the independent Massachusetts Taxpayers Foundation put the total of increased fees and corporate taxes under Romney at $740 million to $750 million per year. But the Romney campaign produced an estimate made by the Massachusetts Department of Administration and Finance which put the total much lower. It estimated the increases in fees amounted to $260 million a year, and elimination of corporate tax “loopholes” brought in another $174 million a year, for a total of $434 million. So take your pick.

And for the record, Romney spokesman Eric Fehrnstrom has argued that Romney faced a $3 billion deficit when he took office as governor. “He balanced the budget primarily through spending cuts and reforms,” Fehrnstrom said. “Fee increases accounted for approximately 10 percent of the solution, and they were not broad-based by any means.”

As for Gingrich’s claim that he “helped reduce spending” as speaker, it’s true that he worked to slow the rate of spending growth.  But as we’ve reported, spending still went up, not down. The Office of Management and Budget’s historical tables show total outlays (table 1.1) continued to rise from fiscal year 1995 ($1.5 trillion) to fiscal year 2000 ($1.8 trillion). That’s an increase of $273.2 billion, or 18 percent.

Winning Our Future: ‘Best Friends’

One new ad deals with health care legislation signed into law by Obama on the federal level in 2010 and Romney in Massachusetts in 2006. Winning Our Future calls its ad “Best Friends,” but at times it displays only a passing acquaintance with the truth.

The ad greatly exaggerates when it claims “Romneycare costs spiraled out of control.” It blames the state law for “hiking premiums” and “squeezing household budgets,” but the facts and the evidence cited by the group don’t back up these sweeping claims.

There’s no dispute that Romney signed the health care legislation in 2006; that some experts who advised him during the drafting of the state law also advised the Obama administration; and that both the federal and state plans have a health insurance exchange.

It is also true that the Wall Street Journal ran an editorial, titled “Obama’s Running Mate: Mitt Romney’s ObamaCare problem” on May 12, 2011. That editorial criticized Romney for failing “to explain his own role or admit any errors” in advancing his health care plan – which they called a “prototype for President Obama’s version.”

The ad, however, trips over the facts when it seeks to portray the state law as unleashing a massive financial burden on the state and households. There’s no evidence of that and the evidence cited by Winning Our Future does not support such claims.

The ad says health care costs in Massachusetts have “spiraled out of control” under the new law. The text on the screen warns: “disaster unfolding in Massachusetts,” while the announcer blames the law for “hiking premiums.” The ad cites Forbes as the source of all of these claims. Actually, they come from an opinion piece in Forbes written by Sally Pipes, president of the Pacific Research Institute — a conservative think tank that describes itself as a champion of “freedom, opportunity, and personal responsibility for all individuals by advancing free-market policy solutions.”

First, it’s a matter of opinion as to whether the Massachusetts health care law is a “disaster,” as Pipes says. But we can say that it has accomplished its primary goal of increasing the number of state residents covered by health care insurance. As we wrote after the Jan. 19 GOP debate in South Carolina, 92 percent of Massachusetts residents were insured before the law went into effect in 2006. As of the end of 2010, 98.1 percent of state residents, and 99.8 percent of children, had insurance.

As for health care costs, which Pipes writes are “spiraling out of control” in Massachusetts, it is true that the state historically has had high premiums. Pipes writes that health care costs in Massachusetts are “rising 15% faster than the national average” and “between 2007 and 2009, premiums rose between 5% and 10% each year.” Her figures, however, are dated and their connection to the health care law is tenuous. As we recently wrote, Massachusetts had the highest premiums for family coverage in the nation in 2008 and 2009, but family premiums fell slightly to $14,606 in 2010. It’s now only 5.3 percent higher than the average for all states.

We reported in great detail on the impact of the health care law on insurance premiums in our March 25, 2011 article, “Romneycare: Facts and Falsehoods.” Since the law was enacted, premiums in the individual market have gone down, while premiums have risen for large employers and their employees who get coverage through work. The law did drive down rates in the individual market, but there’s no clear evidence that the law caused large group rates to go up. The law has, however, had a clear and negative impact on small businesses who buy plans through the small group market.

The ad also flashes snippets of other articles on the screen to hammer its point about the cost of “Romneycare,” as it calls the law. One ripped-from-headlines claim says the law is causing an “‘unsustainable burden’ on state and household budgets,” citing a Dec. 2, 2011 Reuters article. But the article doesn’t support the claim and, actually, undercuts it.

Reuters uses the word “unsustainable” twice when addressing the cost of health care, and neither time in connection with the state law. The first mention comes when the article discusses the rising cost of health care everywhere in the nation, not just Massachusetts. In fact, the article said increasing health care costs are “slightly behind the national trend” in Massachusetts.

Reuters, Dec. 2, 2011: The long-term effects on citizens’ health, and on the cost of care, can only be seen over a lifetime. But preliminary data show that the program has extended coverage to more than 98 percent of state residents; that support for the program has been consistently high among both doctors and patients; that premiums fell for many individuals but rose for small businesses; and that access to preventative care is up while non-essential emergency room visits are down – two trends that over the long haul should “bend the curve” on healthcare costs.

Before then, however, rising costs may push the Massachusetts program – and healthcare plans nationwide – to a breaking point. Per capita healthcare spending in the state is increasing slightly behind the national trend, but even at that rate it is projected to reach an unsustainable level by 2018.

Later in the article, Reuters cites Massachusetts Gov. Deval Patrick as saying health care costs by 2018 will reach almost $16,000 per resident — “$3,000 more than the projected national average, and an unsustainable burden on state and household budgets.”

But the article doesn’t blame the law for ever-rising medical costs. In fact, the article says: “So far, Massachusetts reform has not been the budget-buster that some feared, in part because of the creative way existing revenues were repurposed.” We found in our reporting that costs rose more quickly than expected in the first few years of the law, but they are now in line with what the Massachusetts Taxpayers Foundation had estimated.

Although the Reuters article mentions the governor’s concern about health care costs, it does not quote him. However, Patrick did address the high cost of health care in a speech last February and he, too, did not blame the 2006 state law.

Patrick, Feb. 17, 2011: The challenge of high health care costs is not unique to Massachusetts and it has nothing to do with our experiment here in universal health care.

One last note: It’s ironic that the Reuters article cited by Winning Our Future starts off with an anecdote about a woman who was unable to afford health care insurance – until Massachusetts passed its health care law. That woman soon discovered she had a cyst on her fallopian tubes that could have killed her, if it ruptured. “I am alive today because of Mitt Romney,” the woman told Reuters. “I want to reach out and give him a hug.”

Winning Our Future: ‘Dream Debate’

On a lighter note, WOF is airing on Florida stations a sugar-coated animation. A cartoon Obama — in an imagined future debate with a cartoon Romney — compliments him on his “brilliant” idea of passing off tax increases as “fees” and “loophole” closings.

The 60-second spot is accurate enough. Romney did raise state revenues hundreds of millions of dollars while denying that the increases amounted to a tax increase.

And when the cartoon Obama asks the cartoon Romney how to “get in” on Romney’s low 15 percent personal tax rate, he actually gets the number a bit too high. The real Romney and his wife Ann paid an effective federal income tax rate of 13.9 percent in 2010.

— Eugene Kiely, Robert Farley, Ben Finley, D’Angelo Gore and Brooks Jackson