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A Project of The Annenberg Public Policy Center

VA Democrats Throw the Book at Cuccinelli

A Democratic TV ad goes a little too far when it says GOP gubernatorial candidate Ken Cuccinelli’s new book “questions whether Medicare and Social Security should exist.” Cuccinelli’s book criticizes social welfare programs — including Social Security and Medicare — for making people dependent on government. But he pointedly writes: “I’m not questioning here the existence of these programs.”

The Democratic Party of Virginia began airing the new ad, titled “Peggy,” July 14 in northern Virginia, according to the Campaign Media Analysis Group, a unit of Kantar Media. Peggy is a retiree who pans Cuccinelli’s policy positions in his new book, “The Last Line of Defense.”

“In his book,” Peggy says, “Cuccinelli questions whether Medicare and Social Security should exist, and said people are dependent on government.” The ad displays “page 62” as the source of the first claim and “page 63” for the second.

There is no question that Cuccinelli writes that people are dependent on government programs. In a section subtitled “The Government is Not Benevolent,” he writes that “bad politicians” foster this dependency to amass power.

“The Last Line of Defense,” pages 62-63: Sometimes bad politicians set out to grow government in order to increase their own power and influence. This phenomenon doesn’t just happen in Washington; it happens at all levels of government. The amazing thing is that they often grow government without protest from citizens, and sometimes they even get buy-in from citizens – at least from the ones getting the goodies.

One of their favorite ways to increase their power is by creating programs that dispense subsidized government benefits, such as Medicare, Social Security, and outright welfare (Medicaid, food stamps, subsidized housing, and the like). These programs make people dependent on government. And once people are dependent, they feel they can’t afford to have the programs taken away, no matter how inefficient, poorly run, or costly to the rest of society.

He blames Democrats and Republicans alike for dispensing “goodies” and growing the size of government. He specifically criticizes Medicare Part D — the prescription-drug benefit program that was enacted by President George W. Bush with overwhelmingly Republican support in the House and Senate.

However, on page 238, Cuccinelli says: “I’m not questioning here the existence of these programs,” when he writes about the cost of Social Security, Medicare and defense programs. This time, he is writing in the context of economic growth and benefits of private-sector spending compared with government spending.

“The Last Line of Defense,” pages 237-238: A simple example of how private-sector spending increases economic growth more than government spending does would be a business that smartly spends $100 and expects to earn that amount back plus a return on its investment, so it turns $100 into, let’s say, $115. That’s economic growth.

In contrast, despite how many times you may hear politicians talk about “investments” in government programs, government spends very little on what you could call “investments” that result in economic growth. For example, in 2011, the biggest programs in the federal government were Social Security (20 percent of the budget), national defense (20 percent), and Medicare (13.5 percent). There is no monetary return on these investments in any traditional business sense (that is, one invests money with a goal of getting a return in the form of interest, income or appreciation in value), although there are obviously other reasons America spends money on these programs.

I’m not questioning here the existence of these programs nor the wisdom of how much money is spent on them. What I’m trying to illustrate is that most dollars that government spends do not create economic growth but instead take money out of the hands of the people who do create economic growth.

Cuccinelli clearly writes that people are dependent on government — just as the Democratic ad says. But it goes too far to say he “questions whether Medicare and Social Security should exist,” when in fact he writes he is “not questioning … the existence of these programs.”

— Eugene Kiely, with Madeleine Stevens