Those of us who cover politics for a living grow acquainted with a very specific pidgin of English. You could call it Press Release-ese; actually, call it Flackspeak. After nearly every funding vote in the House of Representatives, the National Republican Congressional Committee has dashed off perfect Flackspeak prose to explain how devastating this vote was to various Democrats’ chances of re-election.
So we’ve heard a lot about Jim Himes. The 47-year old congressman, a former investment banker who won a third term last year, does not appear to be in any real danger. President Obama won his district with 55 percent of the vote; Himes ran five points ahead of the president. Himes’s district, one of the last in the Northeast to swing to the Democrats, captures the country club–laden Connecticut suburbs just east of New York City—Stamford, Fairfield, Greenwich. Like all but five Democrats, he has signed a letter in support of a “clean” continuing resolution to fund the government, and like most, he has voted against the GOP’s alternatives.
This has unleashed a torrent from the NRCC’s communications director, Andrea Bozek. After Himes voted against the GOP’s penultimate offer before the shutdown, Bozek told us that “Jim Himes’ disgraceful vote proves just how out of touch he truly is,” and “Instead of fighting for families, he voted to protect ObamaCare’s exemptions for Congress and unfair delay for big business.”
After Himes voted against a “mini-CR” to open national parks: “It’s disgraceful that Jim Himes would put President Obama’s government shutdown ahead of our nation’s veterans. Jim Himes is so blinded by his loyalty to Obama, he’s willing to halt veterans’ pay and keep our nation’s bravest from visiting their memorials.”
After Himes voted to fund back pay for furloughed workers, then against a mini-CR for the National Institutes of Health: “Why is Jim Himes putting federal workers’ pay ahead of funding for vital government programs like cancer research? Connecticut families are struggling to understand why Himes can’t be bothered to help cancer patients, low income families, and veterans, yet he will rush to ensure that federal workers are taken care of.”
After he voted against another rabbit-from-the-hat plan to send House negotiators to talk to Democrats in the Senate: “Connecticut voters know that we simply cannot spend more money than we take in. Instead of sitting down with Republicans and working toward a solution to our fiscal crisis, Himes is keeping the government shut down and continuing his pattern of reckless spending.”
Congratulations: You may be the second person ever to read those quotes. The Stamford Advocate, which covers Himes, never mentioned the mini-CRs or the Republican attacks. Neither did the Greenwich Time, which never mentioned the NRCC until running a he-said, she-said Associated Press story about a Democratic group blaming Republicans for the shutdown. Himes and local papers have described the shutdown and its consequences as brought on by Republicans. On Tuesday, when Fox News’ Sean Hannity tried the Republican line on Himes—“the NIH is being impacted, all of those things separately have been funded”—Himes called it “total malarkey.” He has since been written up locally for scrapping with Hannity, not for any hypocrisy.
Republicans desperately need that to change. The piecemeal strategy of the past week—the passage in the House of small bills to fund whatever closures are causing headline agita—is meant to tag Democrats now and in the 2014 elections. “If there’s no political heat, if there’s no television story on it, then nothing happens,” snarked President Obama on Tuesday. The Beltway press is skeptical; local reporters, alternating between different shutdown human-interest stories, are not devoting much time to bills of the day being thwarted in the Senate.
Will the heroic mini-CRs and the Democrats’ cowardly votes against children/troops/et al have more oomph in 2014? Assuming the shutdown does eventually end, and the government runs again after every member of Congress has cast some vote for or against funding, the piecemeal attacks will fly into the buzzsaw of the fact-checkers.
“You can't take a vote out of its political context and say it means something that it doesn't mean,” says Angie Holan, the editor of PolitiFact. “If someone voted against funding for Program X in one bill, and in another they voted for it, you can't say this vote against Program X means they hate Program X. We have always been very skeptical of political ads that cherry-pick votes.”
But ad-makers—and I want to be as respectful as I can—do not always craft their art with an eye toward the fact-checkers. As every member of Congress knows, the Affordable Care Act shunted lawmakers and congressional staffers into health care exchanges because Iowa Sen. Chuck Grassley thought this would embarrass Democrats. This made staffers and lawmakers the only people in America who worked for a large employer but were denied premium subsidies from said employer. After Congress and the president worked out a fix, Louisiana Sen. David Vitter introduced an amendment to nix the subsidies again, and other Republicans, such as Arkansas Rep. Tom Cotton, denounced the “unlawful” compromise. Cotton, now running for the U.S. Senate, made this the focus of his first campaign ad—the first Senate ad of 2014.
Cotton’s Democratic opponent, second-term Sen. Mark Pryor, hit back quickly with an ad shaming his opponent for fundraising with “Texas fat cats” and a press statement calling the “goose and gander” attack “blatantly false.” Hours later, PolitiFact weighed in and denounced the ad as both false and—keeping with the excruciating animal theme—“fowl.”
But perhaps we should be thankful that the Cotton campaign ran with this attack and not some version of “Pryor voted to deface the coffins of veterans [by tabling a Republican bill and voting for a clean CR instead], and Arkansas wants to know why.” If this current trolling stage of the shutdown simply peters out as the House rallies behind a new plan, we should be grateful. There may be a few tricks voters still refuse to fall for. Congress will deploy them a few more times, just to make sure.