Donna Edwards Goes Negative

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Well, that didn’t take long, and in her first actual campaign ad, too. Somebody’s not feeling really good about where the race stands. Let’s start with the ad.

In 30 seconds, Edwards manages to attack Chris Van Hollen on Social Security and taking money from Wall Street banks. 

On Social Security, Edwards says “I said no to the Social Security cuts Chris Van Hollen said he’d consider.”

Not true, says John Fritze, just yesterday.

The argument is based on quotes Van Hollen, the top Democrat on the House Budget Committee, gave to reporters in 2012 as Congress was lurching toward the so-called fiscal cliff — a combination of automatic tax increases and budget cuts.

Van Hollen, a lead negotiator working to avoid that outcome, said repeatedly that a 2010 deficit reduction proposal that included cuts to Social Security should serve as the “framework” for averting the cliff.
The controversial proposal came to be known as the Simpson-Bowles plan after the co-chairs who helped craft it: Alan Simpson, a Republican former senator from Wyoming, and Erskine Bowles, a chief of staff to Democratic President Bill Clinton.

“We’re going to see the framework of Simpson-Bowles” in a deal to avert the fiscal cliff, Van Hollen told Bloomberg in 2012. “That mix of cuts, but also revenue, is the right way to go.”

But Van Hollen never discussed or embraced the specific cuts to Social Security the proposal called for. He focused on the ratio of spending cuts to tax increases. At the time, Democrats were pushing Republicans to accept higher taxes to address deficits rather than relying solely on spending cuts.

In the full transcript of the interview with Bloomberg, it is apparent that Van Hollen is speaking of the ratio rather than specific policies.

“Their ratio is about $3 in cuts to $1 in revenue, although there are all sorts of baseline and accounting rules that go into that that are really very important, but not really part of the general conversation,” Van Hollen said. “So I think the overall architecture of Simpson-Bowles, that mix of cuts but also revenue, is the right way to go.”

A month later, Van Hollen specifically cast doubt on the Social Security cuts called for in Simpson-Bowles.

“Well, we need to look at a long-term solution to Social Security,” the Montgomery County lawmaker said on MSNBC. “I don’t agree with the — their specifics on Social Security.”

Edwards and her allies, per Fritze, nevertheless contend that Van Hollen was willing to make a deal on Social Security.

Edwards’ campaign, as well as several progressive groups, have scoffed at the idea that Van Hollen’s quotes were ambiguous. Given the context of the negotiations at the time, they say, Van Hollen’s words were clear.

“He said it [Simpson-Bowles] was ‘the right way to go,'” said Nick Berning, a spokesman for MoveOn.org. “What everybody knew at the time was that Simpson-Bowles was code for ‘Republicans will come to the table offering tax increases and Democrats will come to the table offering Social Security.'”

Well, if that what “everybody knew at the time,” what should we make of Donna Edwards’ comments to Politico a year earlier, a month after the release of the Simpson-Bowles report?

About the deficit commission’s recommendations that affect seniors, Edwards chose not to balk at them but said they should be considered as a whole.

“Here’s the thing, you cannot look at savings from Medicare absent looking at the entire budget,” Edwards said, adding that “if we are going to consider any kind of overhaul to Medicare, let’s look at the whole thing.”

What precisely is the difference between “the framework of Simpson-Bowles” and considering the deficit commission’s recommendations that affect seniors by looking at the whole thing”?

It’s a semantic game. Everyone in Congress on the Democratic side was looking for a framework within which to start discussions over avoiding the fiscal cliff. Including Donna Edwards. And now attacking the chief budget negotiator for the House Democratic caucus for doing his job is appalling.

Nancy Pelosi thinks so too. More from Fritze.

But the record is fuzzier than Edwards sometimes portrays, and a number of observers — including House Democratic leaders — have said repeatedly there is little separating the two Democrats on what has become one of the most substantive policy discussions in the race to succeed retiring Sen. Barbara A. Mikulski.

“I never heard anybody object to the fact that he was our point person,” House Democratic Leader Nancy Pelosi of California told The Baltimore Sun on Monday. “He shares the values of our caucus and knows that we view Social Security, Medicare and the Affordable Care Act as pillars.

* * *

Pelosi has had close relationships with both Edwards and Van Hollen, and praised them both late Monday.

“I have respect for both candidates,” she said. “But I also have respect for what our position has been as a Democratic caucus on these issues.”

On the second issue, taking money from Wall Street banks, Edwards is being equally shady. Fritze again, this time today.

Neither candidate has received significant sums of campaign cash from the banking industry, and their positions on financial regulation are broadly similar. Both supported the Dodd-Frank regulations, for instance, and both voted against a bill in April that would modify how those regulations treat some mortgages.

Edwards vowed in April not to take money from “Wall Street banks” in her campaign for Senate. Van Hollen did not respond to that pledge publicly, but neither campaign has taken from political action committees associated with Wall Street. Both have taken individual contributions from those with ties to the financial sector.

I’ll have a few more thoughts later, but for now suffice to say that it’s very odd for a candidate who’s ahead in a poll (even just by a little bit) three weeks before an election to decide to go negative. Given the extent of Edwards’ SuperPAC support, why didn’t she stay on the upbeat side and let Emily’s List slime Van Hollen like this? And doing it in her own voice means she can’t blame anyone else for the negativity or the lack of honesty in the attack. She owns it, well and truly.

The only way this tactic makes sense is if Edwards, for whatever reason, doesn’t believe she’s really winning, and felt that she needed to do something to change the dynamic. The risk is that the change that comes is a drop in her positives that costs her support.

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