Anti-Romney Ad Fudges Facts, Blows Opportunity for an Important Debate

Why did a pro-Obama super PAC play fast and loose with the sad story of a widowed steelworker? Jesse Singal reports.

08.09.12 8:45 AM ET

As the last few weeks have proved, when it comes to Mitt Romney and money there is an endless variety of angles to discuss, from his time at Bain Capital to his opaque personal finances. These are worthy issues, in that they have a direct bearing both on Romney’s record as a CEO and a taxpayer and on his economic philosophy.

With all those easy targets, it’s curious that a new ad by the pro-Obama super PAC Priorities USA chose to tell a story that isn’t even fully true.

The ad hasn’t aired yet, but will soon in vital states like Ohio and Florida. Available to view on the Priorities USA website, it features a man named Joe Soptic who worked at a Missouri steel plant for almost 30 years. The company that owned the plant, formerly Worldwide Grinding Systems, was acquired by Bain Capital in 1993 and renamed. Bain loaded the company with millions of dollars of debt (while making sure its executives got paid) and shut it down in 2001.

In the ad, Soptic—Joe the Steelworker?—tells the story of what happened next:

“I don’t think Mitt Romney understands what he’s done to people’s lives by closing the plant. I don’t think he realizes that peoples’ lives completely changed. When Mitt Romney and Bain closed the plant I lost my health care, and my family lost their health care. And a short time after that my wife became ill. I don’t know how long she was sick and I think maybe she didn’t say anything because she knew that we couldn’t afford the insurance. [On-screen text: “Joe eventually found work as a custodian. The job paid less than half his previous salary.”] And then one day she became ill and I took her up to the Jackson County hospital, and [they] admitted her for pneumonia, and that’s when they found the cancer. And by then it was Stage 4. It was—there was nothing they could do for her. And she passed away in 22 days. I do not think that Mitt Romney realizes what he has done to anyone, and furthermore I do not think that Mitt Romney is concerned.”

CNN was the first to dig into the ad, and found it factually misleading in a number of ways. For starters, the sad story took longer to unwind than the ad implies—Soptic’s wife, Ilyona, wasn’t diagnosed with cancer until 2006. Moreover, she had health insurance through her employer, which she only lost when a rotator-cuff injury cost her her own job.

Soptic declined to comment, instead referring The Daily Beast to Priorities USA. The super PAC’s senior strategist stood behind the ad.

“That’s not the point,” Bill Burton said, referring to the charge that the ad implies Ilyona lost her health insurance when Joe lost his job. “The point is that when Mitt Romney came to town, and when all these workers lost their jobs, the fact that they didn’t have those jobs, their health-care benefits, or their pension benefits had an impact that lasted for years and continued to this day in that community.”

Okay, but in the ad Soptic says, “When Mitt Romney and Bain closed the plant I lost my health care, and my family lost their health care. And a short time after that my wife became ill.” Is that not an implication that Romney is responsible—even indirectly—for Ilyona’s death?

“No,” Burton said. “I don’t see how anyone could possibly see that.”

Burton also pointed out that if Soptic had still been employed, Ilyona could have joined his health insurance after losing her own job. That’s true, and it’s also true, as Burton said, that, “This was a particularly sad story and I don’t think it should be off-limits just because it doesn’t have a great ending.”

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But the criticism isn’t that the story is out of bounds because it doesn’t have a great ending, it’s that the ad intentionally—and disingenuously—leads viewers to believe that Romney somehow had a hand in Ilyona’s loss of health insurance and, ultimately, her life.

The Obama campaign, which was not involved in the making of the ad, did not respond to a request for comment. What’s particularly frustrating is that this is exactly the sort of conversation progressives and Democrats should be forcing into the presidential campaign. Nothing is more important, at a moment of widespread economic distress, than a robust debate about job losses and cuts to employee benefits and the increasingly bad deal American workers have been getting in recent decades—all of which are trends Romney doesn’t seem particularly concerned about. But instead of talking about these issues, the media is now focused squarely on the ad’s factual deficiencies.

As for the conservatives who insist that the direst issues of health and unemployment and poverty can only be solved by the unfettered free-marketeerism that gave rise to juggernauts like Bain, they got a hanging curveball to hit—“Look at that dishonest Obama ad!”—and so we’ll spend the next few days talking about how dirty the campaign has become instead of the all-too-real issues the ad intended to highlight.

Burton said Priorities USA knew the full chronology of Soptic’s story all along. If that’s true and the group decided to shoot the ad anyway, it’s fair to ask: Couldn’t they have found a better example?