Cindi Ross Scoppe

August 25, 2014

Scoppe: Sheheen’s problem with critiquing Haley? It’s complicated

Columbia, SC

Columbia, SC

I’M NOT particularly impressed by Sen. Vincent Sheheen’s new TV ad criticizing Gov. Nikki Haley for waiting two weeks to tell us that hackers had breached her Revenue Department, making off with the Social Security numbers and other sensitive financial information of 6.4 million current and former individuals and businesses.

If I had to point to one thing I think the governor most clearly did right in that whole mess, it would be complying with the request of law-enforcement officials to keep quiet while they tried to track down the hacker. No one has made any credible suggestion that they didn’t actually make that request, and so to attack the governor for going along is … well, reaching.

I’m not sure how much I blame the governor for the security breach, but certainly it’s legitimate to blame her for it; after all, she gets credit when things go right at her agencies, whether she had anything to do with them or not. But there’s plenty that happened after the hacking, and after it was made public, that is fertile ground for criticism.

Most galling were the governor’s repeated assurances that nobody in South Carolina did anything wrong and that there was nothing anyone in state government could have done to prevent the breach. At a minimum, the Revenue Department could have encrypted its database. It could have had tighter security protocols — so that perhaps the state employee who did in fact allow the hacker in would have been more careful.

Even more troubling were her assurances that weren’t so absurd on their face. She said that hacking experts told her thieves usually use stolen data within six to eight months and that “Usually after a year, they don’t see anything,” but security experts say that while that’s true with credit card numbers, just the opposite is true with Social Security numbers. She insisted that leaving Social Security numbers unencrypted was an “industry standard” in the banking industry, but some banking officials disputed that. She said other states didn’t encrypt their data, but failed to mention that our go-to comparison neighbors, North Carolina and Georgia, do.

The problem is that those legitimate criticisms are … well, complicated. And as Winthrop political scientist Scott Huffman said at a forum at USC a couple of days after Mr. Sheheen launched his commercial, “in politics, if you’re explaining, you’re losing.”

That’s why Mr. Sheheen probably won’t get as much traction as he should out of the other attack he launched last week, accusing the governor of overstating the success of a welfare-to-work program in her own TV ads. That criticism is spot on, and in fact, all of us in the media should be embarrassed that the candidate had to raise the issue himself. (Charleston’s Post and Courier had been nibbling around the edges, but was focused on the quality rather than the quantity of jobs.) If we were doing our job of fact-checking the candidates’ ads, we already would have called her numbers into question.

But talk about complicated. I’m still not positive I have a complete grasp on the numbers, and getting them right involves math, which frightens most people, and keeping track of a bunch of overlapping figures.

The governor’s TV commercial says she has “moved 20,000 from welfare to work.” But as The State, The Greenville News, The Post and Courier and The Associated Press have reported, while the total number of people the Department of Social Services says it has moved from welfare to work is 24,859, the agency also says that 78 percent of those people stayed off welfare for at least two years.

That means 22 percent of them were back on welfare within two years. And that means just 19,390 of them could accurately be said to have been moved from welfare to work.

Now, if that were the only problem with the numbers, it wouldn’t be a problem: Saying 20,000 when you mean 19,390 is legitimate rounding. But there’s more.

It seems that only 17,000 of the people who moved from welfare to work actually moved … from welfare to work. The rest of them were still receiving some form of welfare.

Now, if food stamps are the only thing the rest of them are receiving, then even this might be something you could stretch and call accurate, since some people consider “welfare” to mean only Temporary Assistance for Needy Families, and not food stamps. But that explanation doesn’t work in this case because DSS says that about 6,000 food-stamp-only recipients were included in the welfare-to-work figure.

And then there’s that DSS memo that says people can be categorized as moving from welfare to work “regardless of the number of hours worked per week.” As Mr. Sheheen pointed out, that could mean two or three hours a week, which really isn’t what any South Carolinian would understand to be moving from welfare to work.

See what I mean about this being complicated?

And having such a complicated problem allows the governor’s people to twist the criticism, as they so expertly did with this one: When Sen. Sheheen complained about the claim, her campaign charged that he was opposed to moving people from welfare to work. I suppose it’s possible he could be, but I sort of doubt it, and besides that, nothing he said indicated he was.

What he said was that the governor was being dishonest about her numbers. Which ought to bother voters a lot more than the fact that she complied with a law-enforcement request to give them a couple of weeks to try to track down the hackers. And perhaps it would, if it weren’t so complicated.

Ms. Scoppe can be reached at cscoppe@thestate.com or at (803) 771-8571. Follow her on Twitter @CindiScoppe.

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