Scoppe: The ‘80 percent’ claim

Associate EditorOctober 27, 2010 

IN MONDAY’S debate on ETV, Rep. Nikki Haley charged that “I have watched the good senator spend eighty percent of his advertising dollars attacking me on things that just aren’t true.” Tweak the syntax, and you get an identical claim in the first debate. So I thought it might be useful to look back and see what all it is that Sen. Vincent Sheheen has made up, as she put it when she made the first claim.

Mr. Sheheen’s ads have made six charges about Ms. Haley, some of them in all three ads:

•  Mr. Sheheen takes some liberties with his claims about Ms. Haley’s taxes, charging, in language typical of all three ads, that Ms. Haley “failed to pay her personal and business income taxes year after year, getting fined repeatedly.”

If this were a radio ad, it would clearly be untrue. But in each case, it’s accompanied by one or more prominently displayed newspaper headlines that tell the truth: Ms. Haley paid her taxes late, and was fined for doing so. (She also waited until eight months after her extension expired to even file a tax return, twice.) In two of the ads, this is juxtaposed against Ms. Haley’s use of her accounting experience as a qualification for the job.

•  The other charge that appears in all three ads concerns a contract with the engineering company Wilbur Smith Associates, which has said it paid Ms. Haley $42,500 because of her “good contacts.”

By saying that she “hid” and “failed to disclose” the contract, these ads strongly imply that Ms. Haley was legally required to report it; she was not. But there’s no getting around the fact that Ms. Haley demands things of others that she won’t do herself, as one ad illustrates by discussing the payment right after a clip of her declaring “I want income disclosure for every legislator in the state of South Carolina.”

There’s no question that the facts are accurate: She received the money, she was hired because of who she was (although there’s no way to prove that “legislator” was the key part of who she was), and nobody knew about it until she was shamed by opponents into letting reporters look at her income tax returns.

•  The most explosive charge, in the latest ad, says: “News reports show Haley used her position to interfere with an audit of her business.”

The substance of this claim is a she-said-she-said contest. Former GOP Rep. and Employment Security Commissioner Becky Richardson charged that Ms. Haley called her and asked her to delay an audit. Ms. Richardson said that while delays were routinely granted, it was highly unusual for a legislator to call a commissioner to ask for one. Ms. Haley insists that Ms. Richardson called her, after she had called the number businesses were given if they had questions.

Whoever is telling the truth, it’s 100 percent accurate to say that “news reports show” the claim.

•  Two of the ads attack Ms. Haley’s repeated insistence that she opposed federal stimulus money and note that she “actually voted for the stimulus, not once but twice.” This charge is completely true: Although Ms. Haley now boasts about voting against the stimulus (which shouldn’t impress anyone, since she was voting to give money to other states that the Congress already had decided to spend), she had voted earlier for a specific provision stating the intention of the Legislature to accept the money.

This shows her not quite telling the full truth until she occasionally gets backed into a corner. And her explanation that those earlier votes didn’t really matter, because she voted against it when it counted, strikes at the central reason for her raison d’etre: She always has said that we need a law requiring all legislative votes to be recorded (though she has never actually proposed to record them all) because you just can’t trust legislators to decide which votes matter and which ones don’t.

•  The first ad noted Ms. Haley’s claim to be an outsider and showed a voter saying, “But then I heard she was hand-picked by Mark Sanford.”

We don’t know whether Mr. Sanford recruited Ms. Haley unless one of them admits it. But she has said he encouraged her to run, there’s no question that she was his favorite Republican candidate for governor, and there’s no question that she was trafficking on his popularity, up until his Argentine vacation.

•  The first ad also questioned Ms. Haley’s credentials as a fiscal conservative with the charge that “she wants to put a tax on our groceries.”

Although it’s accurate, my initial reaction was that this was unfair, since Ms. Haley has made it abundantly clear that she wants to reinstate the sales tax on groceries in the context with lowering other taxes. There’s no questioning the fact that she’s a fiscal conservative.

But then I remembered that when she met with our editorial board before the primary, she gave this as an example of an unpopular position she had taken because she thought it was right. You can’t claim political courage for your position and then complain when others point it out.

When the words are taken in the context of the images that appear simultaneously on the screen, there’s simply nothing in any of Mr. Sheheen’s ads that is “not true,” and certainly nothing that’s made up. Although he uses some language that I wouldn’t use, his ads are at the very least as fair as the claims Ms. Haley’s ads have made about him.

Ms. Scoppe can be reached (803) 771-8571 or cscoppe@thestate.com.

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