FIGHTING WORDS: Rating Baldwin, Politifact morphs into Politi-fight | WisCommunity

FIGHTING WORDS: Rating Baldwin, Politifact morphs into Politi-fight

The brain trust at the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel's Politifact took a cheap shot at Rep. Tammy Baldwin today, once again exhibiting the feature's tendency to focus on the foliage of one tree and not the wildfire flames destroying most of the forest.

Although the four candidates for the Republican nomination to US Senate aired the vast majority of TV ads in the primary campaign, unchallenged Democratic nominee Baldwin did run a few ads. Politifact decided to get out its magnifying glass and see if it could spot any Baldwins or Bald-losses. 

The Madison Democrat, who ended up facing former Gov. Tommy Thompson in the Senate race, received Politifact's "mostly false" rating for, in essence, using one of the most common metaphors in politics. Her ad said she "led the fight" for a particular piece of legislation. The ad didn't mention whether the legislation was enacted -- a majority of lawmakers didn't go along -- only that Baldwin fought for a "buy American" provision in the measure.


Although there isn’t evidence of much of a fight, her statement contains an element of truth in that she introduced three amendments aimed at benefiting a Wisconsin manufacturer. But the ad is misleading in suggesting that her fight was successful, when none of the measures she introduced became law. What’s more, it suggests it was part of a broader "Buy American" push, not measures aimed at helping a company in her district.

Actually, in this case, falsehood is entirely in the eye of the Politifact beholder. The Baldwin ad made none of the "suggestions" about legislative victories cited by Politifact -- the suggestions came from Politifact itself. And why would the campaign need to go there? It's common practice for lawmakers in both major political parties to talk about fighting for reforms or new laws, even when they lose. Indeed, the Journal Sentinel has on more than one occasion championed political candidates who have fought for (though not necessarily succeeded in enacting) particular legislation. Ideas matter as much as victory, right? 
Whoops, apparently not.

Ironically, one of Baldwin's efforts to add a "buy American" amendment to the proposed legislation won the support of Rep. Paul Ryan (R-Wisconsin), now the GOP candidate for vice president. But I have a feeling if Ryan ever said he fought for the same provision, he wouldn't be on the butt end of a bad Politifact rating as a result. 

The maxim that nothing succeeds like success may be true, but it's also true than in American politics, effort counts. Ryan has lost any number of battles on legislation, chief among them his last two budget bills, which nevertheless have earned Ryan plaudits from the likes of the Journal Sentinel based on sheer effort. Fact is, most lawmakers -- Ryan and Baldwin included -- rarely succeed in advancing their pet bills through to actual passage.

Maybe Politifact (or, as we like to call it, Politifactoid) thinks that in order for Baldwin's "I led the fight" phrase to be true, she would have had to have punched someone out on the House floor. Okay, that's being as snarky as Politifact itself. Nevertheless, the use of the "fight" trope in political rhetoric is so common that for Politifact to build an entire column out of one particular use of it is nothing less than hilarious.

All the Politifact reporter would have had to do to provide helpful context and a more sensible read on Baldwin's comment was to run a Google search, as we did. Our search provided hundreds of examples of legislators from Wisconsin and elsewhere "fighting" for their constituents, often without reporting outcomes.

Apparently, Politifact now thinks the rhetorical conceit of "fighting" for legislation irrespective of whether the fight succeeded is now to be considered a form of lying, if only in the case of one Democratic congresswoman from Wisconsin. All other users get a pass. Like for instance Mark Neumann, a failed Senate contender who, in his campaign, told listeners that in the 1990s, " I fought so hard against government spending the leaders of my own party kicked me off a key committee for voting against their spending." In other words, he fought and lost. He wasn't explicit about losing, though, so one might suppose he'd by now have received Politifact's Baldwin treatment. Nope.

Or State Rep. Tamara Grigsby, a Democrat who, in discussing a recent fatal shooting in Slinger, Wisconsin, said: "I fought against the castle doctrine [law] to help prevent tragic gun deaths like this." Republicans blocked efforts to defeat that Wisconsin law, so -- in Politifact's new formulation -- one could view Grigsby as not only ineffective but "mostly false" in her telling. Never mind that taking an opposing view, whether you win or lose, is itself important in a democracy. Now, according to Politifact, all that matters is your rate of success in passing legislation, and whether you always keep count for the voters.

Another point: As anyone with a reasonable understanding of English ought to be able to discern, a "mostly false" Politifact rating can now be issued based on Politifact's own sheer inference. This is an outrageous standard, especially when Paul Ryan's entire set of federal budget "proposals" consist almost entirely of ideas framed in rhetoric and almost no hard dollar numbers that make any mathematical sense. Those numbers, by Ryan's own admission, are for now merely to be inferred. I therefore look forward to Politifact's "mostly false" rating on the selling of the Ryan "budget" -- which deserves quote marks around it since it's not really a budget, but at best only a political broadside. But Ryan's feverish principle is Baldwin's bald lie.

The background here is that Baldwin has campaigned as a lawmaker who is fighting the status quo, if not always successfully. And my own inference is that, in the Politifact sphere, this is okay if you're a male candidate for office, but uppity and misleading if you're female, and perhaps especially if you're a Democrat. Consider the following. Asked by Agri-View magazine why she is seeking the Senate, Baldwin used the "fight" word once again: 

As I’ve traveled across the state it is clear that people want someone fighting for them in Washington, not the wealthy and corporate special interests who always end up on top, when the middle class can’t even get a fair shake. The stories of struggle and sacrifice are the same everywhere that I go – jobs shipped overseas, stagnant wages, dwindling retirement accounts, rising health care costs and the rising cost of college tuition.

Baldwin may be fighting but, to extend the new Politifact standard, she doesn't always win the fight and whenever she doesn't state whether she won, her rhetoric is "mostly false." Which sounds definitive, but which misses the point entirely. 

And by the way, Baldwin's opponent in the Senate race does this, too. In 2003, when he was US secretary of health and human services in the Bush administration, Tommy Thompson was asked about funding inequities in Medicare for rural physicians. Thompson replied: "As you probably know I fought the same fight when I was governor of Wisconsin and pledged to make a difference on the subject when I came to Washington."  Thompson didn't happen to mention whether he succeeded at either level (he didn't). No doubt Politifact will be rating his comments on the matter as "mostly false" any day now.

This could all be put to song: "I Fought the Politifact, and the Politifact won." Or a new maxim: You can fight city hall, but not Politifact.

Or you can be Tammy Baldwin, who has every right to see herself and portray herself as a fighter. She ought to ignore all the faux outrage over this self image, which is commonplace among American politicians but refreshing in an uncommon woman with clear leadership skills. Elect her to the Senate and her fight will automatically involve bigger issues and thus be more successful, whether she only touts the fights that succeed, as Politifact seems to prefer.


August 22, 2012 - 8:11pm