There Is a Line and These Two Crossed It

The silly season is in full swing.   Stop believing (in fact, maybe stop reading) the political trash coming into your mailbox, inbox or showing up online. Television you already know not to trust, right?  Someone told me that political ads have invaded streaming services now, which is depressing.

It was Democratic senate candidate Debra Rodman’s television ad attacking Henrico County Senator Siobhan Dunnavant that sparking this post.  I was really put off by the opening, where Rodman expresses her respect for Dunnavant’s medical skills, and then claims the obstetrician has “forgotten” what it is like to be a patient. “Wow, that’s pretty nasty,” was my first thought.  It gets worse. 

As I was looking up the bill in question (more on that later), a news story popped up on the Richmond Times-Dispatch webpage and Rodman’s initial nod to Dr. Dunnavant’s profession was explained.  In an earlier direct mail hit, Rodman called Dr. Dunnavant a quack over support of that bill.  That is lawsuit material, an attack on the professional credibility of an individual and a slur against an entire professional group.  In honor of a World War II battle going on 75 years ago now, that was definitely a bridge too far.

The Blue Virginia piece highlighting Rodman’s television ad is strangely silent on the mail piece, decorated with a duck head.  When Blue Virginia won’t repeat something bad about a Republican, that’s noteworthy.

Outrage was mixed with an expectation that Rodman will pay a price at the polls for that printed libel, but it is par for the course in modern American politics.  Maybe she won’t.  And by the time this morning’s print edition arrived, the story on Rodman-Dunnavant was paired with an example of stupid rhetoric from a local Republican candidate.

Senator Amanda Chase of Chesterfield County, in a tougher race probably than she should be in that district, bragged she was “not afraid to shoot down gun groups.”  It was an online advertisement, showing her with her firearm at a gun range.  Being an online ad, it was easy to amend and might not have penetrated like a mail piece, but the follow up excuse blaming a third-party vendor falls flat.

Every candidate should be held accountable for every claim or silly comment in any mail piece, radio advertisement, robocall, online pronouncement or television spot.  Despite the law against coordination between candidates and those dark money outside groups, always assume the candidate who benefits was fully aware and fully approved.  Never accept “gee, I don’t know those people, didn’t approve that.”  Allow zero deniability.

The amount of money sloshing around already means that the final few weeks of this campaign will be the trashiest to date among Virginia legislative elections.  It is embarrassing to have cash on hand at the end and piles of direct mail or robocalls are a quick way to empty the bank account.  I’m not sure whether to blame the voters or the campaigns, but clearly now it is mainly mud at the end.  Brace yourselves.

Just what is this bill Rodman is attacking Dunnavant over?  Did it really, as she claims, “let insurance companies deny coverage for pre-existing conditions.” That ability to buy coverage is of course is one of the most popular features of the federal Affordable Care Act, a.k.a. Obamacare, which Democrats defend in pieces but often not in toto.

Senate Bill 844 from 2018 was one of several bills that the General Assembly Republicans have passed to allow lower cost, less comprehensive insurance packages for those who want or need another choice.  A whole series of them have been vetoed by Governor Ralph Northam.  This particular bill would have authorized short term (364 days or less) coverage exempt from the full package of mandatory benefits in the regulated market.

Anybody buying such a plan would be doing so by choice.  None of the group plans offered by employers or even the ACA-compliant individual marketplace would have changed.  All of them would still be required to take applicants with pre-existing conditions.  None of the GOP bills changed any of that.  But consumers looking for individual coverage would have an additional choice.

Will that work?  Don’t ask me.  It might lure people away from better coverage.  Blue Virginia’s piece provides more argument over the issue.  I know that what we have now is not working and people remain frustrated.  Many Democrats now are ready to go way beyond the ACA because of those frustrations.

What would be a fair statement about that bill?  The bill allowed insurance companies to offer alternative plans not compliant with the ACA, providing far less protection. But that makes the argument about government regulation versus consumer choice.  With Rodman’s phrasing, the viewer or reader is supposed to believe the bill changed the rules on all health coverage in Virginia.

The initial plan for this was a discussion on the issue, but the mail pieces hijacked that.  Providing only partial information and ignoring any explanation is how political advertising is done, but it still means you should doubt everything you see, read and hear from now on.

The best mail piece in my mind has the candidate’s name, their best head shot and family photos, the office being sought, some bio material, the date of the election and some nice puffy promises unlikely to be kept.  Make sure the name is in large print on both sides, so the voter at least gets that much information as the flyer is carried to the recycling bag.