Congressman Cotton's commercial

We might call it the Curious Case of Congressman Cotton’s Commercial. That’s too much alliteration, even when we drop the “Curious,” which we should do as there is nothing curious about it. It more properly should be labeled “Congressman Cotton’s Conscious Calculation of Constituent Incompetence.” Still too much alliteration, but it cuts to the chase.

The commercial has been running for days now, and for almost as long it has been called out for its jaw-dropping falsity. I saw it for the first time while watching the Razorbacks fall to Florida and, as weathered by political cynicism as I consider myself to be, I was nonetheless startled by its uncommon brazenness. So were my companions.

Cotton, of course, is the U.S. representative from Arkansas’ 4th District and the almost certain Republican nominee for the U.S. Senate seat that incumbent Democrat Mark Pryor is defending. Cotton, of course, is basing his campaign on a presumed loathing of President Obama by a majority of Arkansans (loathing may be too strong, but it’s in the ball park) and their misunderstanding (put gently, in my experience) of his signature accomplishment, the Affordable Care Act — or the ACA, aka Obamacare. Cotton, of course, seeks to weld Pryor to Obama, and to Obamacare.

Pairing Pryor with Obamacare is accurate enough because Pryor voted for it, no question, and no matter that 59 others of the 100-member Senate, in the showdown that sent it to the floor for consideration, did as well. And fair enough to let Pryor and Cotton debate through next November (and they will) the pros and cons of Obamacare, the wisdom or the foolishness.

Not fair, nor accurate nor truthful: Cotton’s claim that Pryor voted to give himself and his colleagues “special subsidies,” effectively exempting members of Congress from Obamacare. It is a blatant falsehood, endlessly repeated by the most strident opponents of the ACA in the hope that voters are sufficiently ill-informed or frightened or angry enough to swallow it. The substance of the Cotton commercial has been so thoroughly discredited by so many independent fact-check organizations that the autopsy need hardly be repeated here, though the bottom line seems to demand it: members of Congress do not enjoy any exemption and never did; they received, and receive, the same employer contribution toward health-insurance coverage as any other individual with group benefits; and the language that temporarily stripped them of such subsidy was the product of a Republican-sponsored amendment, a little time bomb that was defused when the Republican speaker helped Democrats secure a waiver from Mr. Obama. That is not a columnist’s interpretation, analysis, or opinion. It is fact.

Cotton’s ad goes on to assert “higher insurance premiums for you” under Obamacare even though the bulk of the available evidence, and certainly the projections from the non-partisan Congressional Budget Office, fail to reflect as much. It is the “special subsidy” for the legislative branch, however, that runs completely counter to truth.

So quickly did the latest round of debunking begin, and so thorough was its specificity, that the Cotton campaign could have been expected to pull the spot from the airwaves. Perhaps in an earlier time it would have. But no. Indeed its response to the criticism has been to double-down.

It is “stunning,” Cotton spokesman Justin Brasell told the Arkansas News Bureau’s Peter Urban, that Pryor enjoys “a special subsidy that taxpayers buying insurance as individuals don’t get.” Stunning — that fits. Not, though, in the way Brasell intends.

Not necessarily stunning, just surprising, has been Pryor’s response. He soon enough emailed to news organizations and his supporters a word-for-word takedown of the Cotton ad, superfluous in distribution and content in that it only restated excerpts from the voluminous dissection of its claims. The counter-ad the Pryor campaign put up was almost bland in its refutation when a head-on, meat-axe assault on its veracity was warranted. “Frivolous” was its dismissal of Cotton’s commercial; surely someone on Pryor’s campaign staff suggested a blunter term.

Both candidates ought be on notice. With the stakes especially high this year, the advertising each pours onto television and radio will get an especially vigorous vetting.

Our country plainly is at a cross-roads — the two parties agree on that, albeit at every election — and Arkansas deserves a spirited, robust debate over public policy, national values, the American prospect in the 21st Century. It does not deserve the sort of cynicism that turns facts upside down and takes voters for fools, as represented by such commercials as the one described above, the most discouraging words of which were, “I’m Tom Cotton, and I approved this message.”

Steve Barnes is a native of Pine Bluff and host of Arkansas Week on AETN.