Factcheck.org on McCain's Attack Ads

On the eve of the crucial Florida GOP primary, John McCain is attacking Mitt Romney with some out-of-context or misleading statements on radio and the Internet:

A Web ad says Romney's health care program in Massachusetts is "not very good" and "is failing." But official figures indicate that roughly 200,000 previously uninsured residents have gained health coverage, and those persons might disagree.

The ad says the Romney plan is costing $400 million more than expected. That's because more people are benefiting than were expected.

A radio ad running in Florida accuses Romney of proposing $20 billion to Detroit "to bail out the auto industry." Romney actually proposed a $16 billion increase in federal research into "energy research, fuel technology, materials science, and automotive technology."

In the past few days, Sen. John McCain's campaign released two ads, one on the Internet and another on the radio in Florida. Both are harshly critical of his rival, Mitt Romney, attacking the health care plan he signed into law as governor of Massachusetts and his economic record. The latest polls show the two Republican presidential candidates in a close battle for GOP voters in Florida, which holds its primary Jan. 29.

'Not Very Good' For Whom?
The Web ad, released Jan. 25, begins by saying it's a "Mitt Romney issue alert," and then disparages the Massachusetts universal health insurance plan, charging that it's "a big government mandate." The McCain camp wraps up its assessment of the plan by saying, quite simply, it's "not very good."

McCain's ad is misleading when it states that "hundreds of thousands of people are uninsured" despite Romney's changes to health care in the state. In fact, hundreds of thousands have gained insurance, too.

Just how many is not certain. There are 300,000 residents who have signed up for health insurance since the plan was put into place in mid-2006. That includes both persons who were previously uninsured and those who may have dropped their coverage in favor of a more desirable plan.

The Commonwealth Connector, an independent entity that was established to implement the state health plan, estimates that "over half" of those who were uninsured before the state plan was launched have gained coverage. That works out to be about 200,000 people, since the Massachusetts Division of Health Care Finance Policy said that 395,000 were uninsured before the plan was put into place. (A more concrete estimate from that state agency should be released in late summer.)

So while McCain is entitled to his opinion when he says the Romney plan is "not very good," we suspect a lot of newly covered residents disagree.

A Health Plan Half-Full
Much of the McCain ad is pure opinion – and there is plenty of that to go around regarding the Massachusetts health care reform. The ad flatly states that the health care plan is "failing," but it seems it's too soon to reach a verdict on the changes Massachusetts has put into place. The plan has been in effect only since June 2006, and details such as the amount of penalty for those who fail to sign up for coverage are still in flux.

Opinion varies widely on the plan's virtues, even among conservatives. The Cato Institute considers it too costly and unlikely to work, and Cato Director of Health Policy Michael F. Cannon frequently criticizes the program on the Cato Institute blog. Meanwhile, the equally conservative Heritage Foundation portrays the Massachusetts plan as a valuable prototype for consumer-driven insurance, citing a 45 percent drop in minimum premium costs and a 34 percent reduction in the uninsured. On the other end of the political spectrum, some universal health care proponents think the plan doesn't go far enough: David Himmelstein and Steffie Woolhandler, cofounders of Physicians for a National Health Program, called Massachusetts' and similar plans "economic nonsense" in a New York Times op-ed.

All sides are free to state their opinions, but they remain opinions. At this stage, it's simply too early to tell who is right. McCain's ad implies that a consensus has already declared that the Romney-backed plan "is failing."

$400 Million Over Budget?
The McCain ad also says that the Massachusetts plan is "$400 million over budget" and that "taxes will be raised in the future to pay for it." McCain's budget figure is correct – and the state would have to come up with the money some way, taxes being a strong possibility. However, one reason the plan has cost more than expected is that many more state residents have signed up for insurance than originally anticipated. "Officials had projected that about 140,000 would enroll in the new state-financed insurance plan ... which provides full or partial subsidies," according to the Boston Globe. "[T]he state is now estimating enrollment will reach 225,000 by June 2009."

One Man's Bail Out…
The McCain campaign is also airing a radio ad in Florida, which says, "Here are some numbers that should scare every Florida Republican" and then lists several Romney-related statistics.

A few of them, however, are misleading or require context. The announcer in the ad says that Romney promised $20 billion to Detroit "to bail out the auto industry on the back of taxpayers." But that $20 billion was what Romney proposed as a "national investment in energy research." Here's Romney at a Jan. 14 speech to the Detroit Economic Club:

Romney (Jan. 14, 2008): If we're going to be the world's greatest economic power, we also have to invest in the future. It's time for us to be bold. I will make a five-fold increase – from $4 billion to $20 billion – in our national investment in energy research, fuel technology, materials science, and automotive technology. Let's invest in our future.

Perhaps to McCain's ears that's a bail out. But the senator has been a strong proponent of pursuing alternative energies in the past – so strong that he proposed the improbable goal of making the country "oil independent" within five years. We didn't let that claim go unchecked, either.

Sticking It To Him
The radio ad also says, "700 million … a tax increase Romney stuck to the people of Massachusetts." We've quibbled with this one before. Technically, most of what Romney raised was in the form of fees, not taxes, such as court filings and firearm licensing fees. But he also closed loopholes on corporate taxes. There is disagreement on the total amount as well, with the state Department of Administration and Finance putting the fee total at $260 million a year and the corporate tax change at $174 million a year, and the independent Massachusetts Taxpayers Foundation saying both fees and taxes totaled $740 million to $750 million a year.

This point has been grist for both campaigns, as Romney uses the fact that most of the state revenue increases came from "fees" to make the misleading claim that he never raised "taxes."