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A Project of The Annenberg Public Policy Center

‘Fact’ Lifted Out of Context in Nebraska

A super PAC ad rips a quote out of context in an attempt to portray Republican Senate candidate Ben Sasse — recently described as “Obamacare’s Nebraska Nemesis” — as an early supporter of the Affordable Care Act.

The ad says that in 2010, Sasse called the Affordable Care Act  “an important first step.” But a fuller examination of his comments at a health care summit makes clear that Sasse was saying the law was an important first step toward “thinking about” the problem of the 47 million uninsured in the U.S. He immediately followed that by adding that he did not believe the Affordable Care Act solves the underlying cause of the coverage problem or what he called “the cost problem.”

Sasse has long been a staunch and vocal opponent of the Affordable Care Act (a.k.a. Obamacare).

The ad’s allegation that Sasse is squishy on the Affordable Care Act is particularly powerful because Sasse has made the repeal of the law a cornerstone of his campaign message. In January, National Review ran a cover story about Sasse, calling him “Obamacare’s Nebraska Nemesis.”

The ad from the super PAC Freedom Pioneers Action Network begins with the narrator stating, “Fact: Ben Sasse said Obamacare is ‘an important first step.’ Then he dodged responsibility.”

The same partial quote from Sasse was cited in an ad from Sasse’s Republican opponent Shane Osborn as evidence that Sasse was “bragging on Obamacare before he was looking for votes.”

Both ads cite a story in the Fremont Tribune as the source of Sasse’s quote. The story was about a presentation by Sasse, president of Midland University,  at the Fremont Area Health Care Summit on the Midland campus on Nov. 5, 2010. It was three days after the midterm elections in which Republicans regained control of the House, but did not gain enough seats to overtake a Senate majority.

Here’s the relevant part of the story:

Fremont Tribune, Nov. 6, 2010: Ultimately, Sasse said the healthcare bill “is an important first step” in thinking about healthcare coverage, but does not address problems that drive the growth of uninsured Americans.

Note that even the fuller context from the Fremont Tribune story — which only partially quotes and then paraphrases Sasse’s remarks — makes clear that Sasse was not calling the Affordable Car Act “an important first step” toward solving the country’s health care problem, but rather that it was an important first step in “thinking about” the problem of the uninsured. It also immediately paraphrases Sasse as saying that the ACA “does not address problems that drive the growth of uninsured Americans.”

On May 2, the Fremont Tribune chided Osborn for lifting Sasse’s quote out of context from its 2010 story. “After rereading the story, we believe it is obvious Mr. Sasse has never supported Obamacare,” the editors wrote.

We listened to the entirety of Sasse’s hour-long presentation at the health care summit and, while Sasse claims near the start that he intends to give a nonpartisan evaluation of the politics facing health care reform in light of the midterm elections, his comments made perfectly clear that he does not support the bill. He noted that the political reality of Republicans regaining the House would likely lead to “symbolic” votes to repeal the ACA, but he said that with Democrats still controlling the Senate and presidency, those appeal efforts would fail. Events have proven him right, because the House has voted dozens of times to repeal the law without success.

Sasse argued that in 2010 Democrats had pivoted away from a bill that would address coverage, cost and quality, and instead proposed “a coverage-only bill.” The issue of the uninsured is a serious one, he said, with 47 million people uninsured in the U.S., “but it isn’t the whole problem.”

“The bill we passed does not have serious cost control and it doesn’t in any serious way address the quality problem in American health care,” Sasse said. Importantly, Sasse said, it did not address the “massive debt that will be run up in the future in Medicare.” Neither party, he said, has proposed a meaningful solution for that.

It was in that context that Sasse made his “important first step” comments (which you can listen to here).

Sasse, Nov. 5, 2010: Ultimately, what we passed in March is an important first step on thinking about the coverage problem in the American health care system. But the underlying problems that drives the growth of uninsurance are not being addressed by ducking the larger entitlement problems. And a coverage-only bill that just says we could pay for more things out of taxes, but doesn’t have any underlying connection to the reality of why the uninsured are growing in America is not a solution, even to the Democrats who advocate it.”

Sasse went on to speak about his health care debates with Democrat Howard Dean, a former Vermont governor and chairman of the Democratic National Committee, in which he claimed Democrats “don’t actually have any solution to the cost problem.” Later in his address, Sasse said the ACA has “tons of subsidies and regulations that are unaffordable.”

In response to the ads, the Sasse campaign has fired back with an ad featuring Republican Sen. Mike Lee of Utah warning viewers not to be “fooled by false attacks” and that “Ben Sasse has always opposed Obamacare. Period.”

Pulling quotes out of context to embarrass an opponent is hardly new in the full-contact sport of politics. (See here, here, here and here for just a few examples).  In this case, the deceptive use of Sasse’s quote distorts his position on an issue at the heart of Sasse’s campaign.

Freedom Pioneers Action Network was formed in 2012 by Justin Brasell, a former campaign manager for Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell. Brasell, who is currently managing the campaign of Arkansas Senate candidate Tom Cotton, served as the PAC’s treasurer until recently, but since has cut ties with it. Sasse’s biggest outside investor, meanwhile, has been Senate Conservatives Fund, a group that has backed Matt Bevin’s efforts to unseat McConnell in the Republican primary.

Sasse and Osborn are just two of the candidates seeking to replace Sen. Mike Johanns, who is not running for reelection. Also competing for the Republican nomination are Pinnacle Bank Chairman Sid Dinsdale and attorney Bart McLeay. Already, the race has generated nearly $2 million in outside spending. The primary is May 13.

 — Robert Farley