As we noted in today’s editorial about Gov. Nikki Haley’s misleading claims about eliminating government regulations, this isn’t the first time she has misstated or overstated or mislead. Below is my column from Sept. 28, 2011, about her claims concerning drug abuse among the unemployed, and other problems.
A certain naivete?
CINDI ROSS SCOPPE
THE EXTRAORDINARY thing about Gov. Nikki Haley ’s discredited claim that half the job applicants at the Savannah River Site had failed drug tests — the actual number was less than 1 percent — wasn’t her acknowledgment that she couldn’t back it up. It was her explanation for why she ever would have parroted such an absurd claim to begin with.
Some unidentified someone she talked to told her that during the campaign, she told The Associated Press’ Jim Davenport last week, and she took it at face value and ran with it. "I’ve never felt like I had to back up what people tell me," she said. "You assume that you’re given good information."
I used to think the same thing about elected officials.
I don’t mean I believed everything they said. Quite the contrary. As a reporter, the most fun I had — and some of my most important work — was writing “fact check” articles that explained what was untrue or misleading about the claims politicians made in their political ads, speeches and debates.
Typically, this involved sins of omission: Candidates take their opponents’ votes or comments out of context to create an incorrect and unfair impression. And it tended to be confined to the campaign trail. The overwhelming majority of elected officials I’ve dealt with in a quarter century of covering politics could be trusted with the basic facts once the campaign was ended and they were talking about policy instead of their opponents. They didn’t fabricate “facts”; even Mark Sanford just manipulated numbers in convoluted and misleading ways — although he did it more purposefully and masterfully than any of his predecessors.
I took note before last year’s GOP primary of several misleading claims Ms. Haley had made during a meeting with our editorial board. What was striking was that she would stretch the truth so far in a setting where most candidates go out of their way to be extra careful. More striking was that there was no need for any of it. Although it might have meant a bit more work, she could have made legitimate arguments if she had stuck to the facts.
What has remained notable since she took office is that her demonstrably inaccurate claims continue to be unnecessary.
Rather than make the case for why she wanted a roll-call voting law instead of just the House and Senate rules that were already in effect, she insisted — inaccurately — that votes weren’t being recorded.
Rather than explain why she wanted to float bonds to pay back loans to the unemployment insurance trust fund, her office insisted — absurdly — that doing so did not constitute borrowing.
Rather than point to 9,000 job announcements — or the still-impressive 5,000 if you count them the way her own Commerce Department counts them — she bragged repeatedly of bringing 10,000 jobs to the state in less than six months.
Rather than explain that it’s absurd to expect an economic recruitment mission to yield immediate results, she claimed that she had “closed two deals” on her trip to Europe — a claim her Commerce secretary disputed, until it became clear that he wasn’t supposed to have done that.
I can’t count the times I’ve heard the phrase “pathological liar” used to describe the governor. But the SRS episode suggests a different — though in some ways just as disturbing — explanation: that rather than deliberate deception, her misleading and inaccurate statements stem from a combination of carelessness and a certain naivete — a willingness to suspend disbelief when we hear things that support our preconceived notions.
Gee, it never occurred to me that something I want to hear could be untrue.
“And now,” she told Mr. Davenport, “I’m learning through you guys that I have to be careful before I say something.”
That sort of carelessness is fairly common among people who aren’t used to being in the public spotlight. But most elected officials I know are actually quite careful about getting the facts right. They footnote their claims. They say they’ll have to get back to you before answering a question — not because they want to figure out how to spin it but because they want to make sure that they know what they’re talking about.
It’s not that they’re any more honest than those outside of the political world. They merely understand that someone is likely to look behind them and call them on it if their claims aren’t true. Or at least most of them do.
One reporter told me that the governor’s office seemed taken by surprise when questions were raised about the 10,000-jobs claim, as if no one had even considered the possibility that anyone would check to make sure it was accurate. Clearly that was the case with the SRS claim, which the governor said she had repeated "a million times."
Perhaps we shouldn’t be surprised to see such carelessness in someone who was so quickly catapulted from obscure backbencher to governor. Perhaps that’s the risk we run when we elect someone unaccustomed to anyone other than liked-minded supporters paying attention to what she says.
What struck me initially about Ms. Haley ’s speech to the Lexington Rotary Club wasn’t the ridiculous claim that half the job applicants at SRS had failed a drug test . It was that even after being called to task for overstating her economic recruitment successes, she was still talking about job announcements as if they were actual jobs.
After bemoaning the state’s painfully high unemployment rate and boasting (apparently accurately, by now) that she has announced more than 11,000 new jobs, she said: “That’s a lot of jobs. But why are we still having the problems?”
Maybe because those were merely announcements of companies’ intentions to perhaps one day eventually bring those jobs to our state?
Now that she has been forced to back off the drug -testing claim that she says convinced her that we need to make laid-off workers pass drug tests before they receive unemployment checks, I’m struck by the fact that she’s still pushing for the mandatory tests.
I don’t find it objectionable to require the tests. Wasteful, yes — since taxpayers would have to foot the bill, and indications are that fewer than 5 percent of applicants would test positive — but not philosophically objectionable.
What I find objectionable is basing an expensive policy position on an unbelievable anecdote that you didn’t even bother to question because it fits so comfortably with your preconceived notions. And then clinging to that position even after the anecdote has been so utterly discredited.