BILL MOYERS: This week on Moyers and Company: The scheme to remake America, one state house at a time.
LISA GRAVES: Politicians and corporate representatives, corporate lobbyists were actually voting behind closed doors on these changes to the law before they were introduced in state houses across the country.
BILL MOYERS: The United States of ALEC. And…
KATHLEEN HALL JAMIESON: We need to have a drum roll of media attention that says. If you don’t stop and watch the debates that night, you’re really missing out on an important cultural moment.
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BILL MOYERS: Welcome, to a story that's been unfolding for more than 30 years but has gone largely untold. That's the way the central characters wanted it. They were smart and understood something very important: that they might more easily get what they wanted from state capitals than from Washington, DC. So they started putting their money in places like Raleigh, North Carolina; Nashville, Tennessee; Phoenix, Arizona; and Madison, Wisconsin. That’s because what happens in our state legislatures directly affects our taxes, schools, roads, the quality of our air and water -- even our right to vote.
Politicians and lobbyists at the core of this clever enterprise figured out how to pull it off in an organized, camouflaged way -- covering their tracks while they put one over on an unsuspecting public. This is the story of how and why it worked. Our report was many months in the making. It's collaboration between Tom Casciato and Kathleen Hughes, the filmmakers at Okapi Productions; and the Schumann Media Center that I head. Schumann supports independent journalism and public watchdog groups like the Center for Media and Democracy, whose investigators have been tracking the footprints of ALEC, an organization hiding in plain sight, yet one of the most influential and powerful in American politics.
ARIZONA DEM. REP. STEVE FARLEY: I’ve often told people that I talk to out on the campaign trail when they say “state what?” when I say I’m running for the state legislature. I tell them that the decisions that are made here in the state legislature are often more important for your everyday life than the decisions the president makes.
JOHN NICHOLS: If you really want to influence the politics of this country you don’t just give money to presidential campaigns, you don’t just give money to congressional campaign committees. The smart players put their money in states.
FORMER PRESIDENT RONALD REAGAN: ALEC has forged a unique partnership between state legislators and leaders from the corporate and business community. This partnership offers businessmen the extraordinary opportunity to apply their talents to solve our nation’s problems and build on our opportunities…
LISA GRAVES: I was stunned at the notion that politicians and corporate representatives, corporate lobbyists were actually voting behind closed doors on these changes to the law before they were introduced in statehouses across the country.
HOUSE SPEAKER JOHN BOEHNER: ALEC, has been I think a wonderful organization. Not only does it bring like-minded legislators together. But the private sector engagement in partnership in ALEC is really what I think makes it the organization that it is.
BILL MOYERS: Have heard the name ALEC in the news lately.
CHRIS MATTHEWS: The American Legislative Exchange Council, or ALEC for short.
FOX NEWS REPORTER: The American Legislative Exchange Council, or ALEC.
BILL MOYERS: ALEC is a nationwide consortium of elected state legislators working side by side with some of America’s most powerful corporations. They have an agenda you should know about, a mission to remake America, changing the country by, changing its laws, one state at a time. ALEC creates what it calls “model legislation,” pro-corporate laws its members push in statehouses across the nation. ALEC says close to a thousand bills, based at least in part on its models, are introduced each year. And an average of 200 pass. This has been going on for decades. But somehow, ALEC managed to remain the most influential corporate-funded political organization you’d never heard of--until a gunshot sounded in the Florida night.
RACHEL MADDOW: Trayvon Martin unarmed but for a bag of candy and iced tea that he was carrying.
BILL MOYERS: You’ll recall that the shooter in Trayvon Martin’s death was protected at first by Florida’s so-called Stand Your Ground law. That law was the work of the National Rifle Association. There’s its lobbyist standing right beside Governor Jeb Bush when he signed it into law in 2005. Although ALEC didn’t originate the Florida law, it seized on it for the Stand Your Ground model it would circulate in other states. Twenty-four of them have passed a version of it.
RASHAD ROBINSON: How did this law not only get in place in Florida but around the country? And all the fingers kept pointing back to ALEC.
BILL MOYERS: When civil rights and grassroots groups learned about ALEC's connection to Stand Your Ground laws, they were outraged.
RASHAD ROBINSON: ALEC doesn’t do its work alone, they do it with some of the biggest corporate brands in America.
BILL MOYERS: Before long, corporations were pulling out of ALEC, including Coca-Cola, Kraft Foods, McDonald’s, Mars, Proctor & Gamble, Johnson & Johnson. Caught in the glare of the national spotlight, ALEC tried to change the subject.
KAITLYN BUSS: You know, I think the entire debate needs to be reframed, and really what ALEC is, is a bipartisan association of state legislators -- we have legislators of all political stripes coming together to talk about the most critical issues facing the states […] and trying to come up with the best solutions to face some of the problems that we’re having.
MEGYN KELLY: Alright, so your point is it’s not a partisan organization.
BILL MOYERS: But ALEC is partisan. And then some.
LISA GRAVES: In the spring I got a call from a person who said that all of the ALEC bills were available and was I interested in looking at them. And I said I was.
BILL MOYERS Lisa Graves, a former Justice Department attorney, runs the center for media and democracy, a nonprofit investigative reporting group in Madison, Wisconsin. In 2011 by way of an ALEC insider, Graves got her hands on a virtual library of internal ALEC documents. She was amazed by its contents: a treasure trove of actual ALEC model bills.
LISA GRAVES: These are the bills that were provided by the whistleblower. That’s just the index.
BILL MOYERS: There were more than 850 of them -- 850 boilerplate laws that ALEC legislators could introduce as their own in any state in the union.
LISA GRAVES: Bills to change the law to make it harder for American citizens to vote, those were ALEC bills. Bills to dramatically change the rights of Americans who were killed or injured by corporations, those were ALEC bills.
Bills to make it harder for unions to do their work were ALEC bills. Bills to basically block climate change agreements, those were ALEC bills.
When I looked at them I was really shocked. I didn’t know how incredibly extensive and deep and far-reaching this effort to rework our laws was.
BILL MOYERS: She and her team began to plow through ALEC documents, as well as public sources, to compile a list of the organizations and people who were or had been ALEC members.
They found hundreds of corporations, from Coca-Cola and Koch Industries to Exxon Mobil, Pfizer, and Wal-Mart; dozens of right-wing think tanks and foundations; two dozen corporate law firms and lobbying firms; and some thousand state legislators a few of them democrats, the majority of them republican.
WISCONSIN DEM. REP. MARK POCAN: ALEC is a corporate dating service for lonely legislators and corporate special interests that eventually the relationship culminates with some special interest legislation and hopefully that lives happily ever after as the ALEC model. Unfortunately what’s excluded from that equation is the public.
BILL MOYERS: In the Wisconsin Statehouse, Democratic Representative Mark Pocan is trying to expose ALEC’s fingerprints whenever he can. By one count, over a third of Pocan’s fellow Wisconsin lawmakers are ALEC members.
WISCONSIN DEM. REP. MARK POCAN: When you look around especially on the Republican side of the aisle, a lot of members of ALEC, front row, ALEC, when you start going down to the chair of finance and some of the other members are all ALEC members, in fact the ALEC co-chair of the state, row by row you can point out people who have been members of ALEC over the years.
There's two main categories they have. One is how to reduce the size of government, and the other half of it is this model legislation that's in the corporate good. In other words, there's a profit driven legislation. How can you open up a new market? How can you privatize something that can open up a market for a company? And between those two divisions you are kind of getting to the same end goal which is really kind of ultimate privatization of everything.
BILL MOYERS: Mark Pocan is something of an expert on ALEC. In fact, to learn as much about it as he could, he became a member.
WISCONSIN DEM. REP. MARK POCAN: What I realized is if you join ALEC for a mere hundred dollars as a legislator you have the full access like any corporate member.
BILL MOYERS: He also took himself to an ALEC conference for a first-hand look.
WISCONSIN DEM. REP. MARK POCAN: Hi, I’m state representative Mark Pocan, I’m outside the Marriott on Canal Street in New Orleans at the ALEC convention, American Legislative Exchange Council.
That was where you watch the interaction of a room full of lobbyists—free drinks, free cigars, wining, dining, many people just came from a dinner that was sponsored by some special interests, coming to a party that’s sponsored by special interests, so they can continue to talk about special interests.
LISA GRAVES: This is from the New Orleans convention. This includes a number of seminars that they held for legislators including one called “Warming up to Climate Change: The Many Benefits of Increased Atmospheric CO2."
BILL MOYERS: That 2011 ALEC conference, lo and behold, was sponsored by BP, Exxon Mobil, Chevron, and Shell, among others. Another of its events featured guns.
LISA GRAVES: And this is the NRA sponsored shooting event. For legislators and for lobbyists. Free.
BILL MOYERS: There was even one offering free cigars.
LISA GRAVES: Sponsored by Reynolds American which is one of the biggest tobacco companies in the world and the Cigar Association of America.
BILL MOYERS: It sounds like lobbying. It looks like lobbying. It smells like lobbying. But ALEC says it’s not lobbying. In fact, ALEC operates not as a lobby group, but as a nonprofit … a charity. In its filing with the I.R.S. filing ALEC says its mission is “education.” Which means it pays no taxes, and its corporate members get a tax write-off. Its legislators get a lot too.
WISCONSIN DEM. REP. MARK POCAN: In Wisconsin, I can't take anything of value from a lobbyist. I can't take a cup of coffee from a lobbyist. At ALEC, it's just the opposite. You know, you get there and you're being wined and dined by corporate interests, I can go down there,
And be wined and dined for days in order to hear about their special legislation. I mean, the head of Shell Oil flew in on his private jet to come to this conference. The head of one the largest utility companies in the country was there on a panel. Utility company in 13 states and here he is presenting to legislators. I mean, they clearly brought in some of the biggest corporate names in “special interestdom” and had that meeting with legislators because a lot of business transpires at these events.
BILL MOYERS: The most important business happens in what ALEC calls “task forces.” There are currently eight of them, with a corporate take on every important issue in American life, from health and safety to the environment to taxation. In ALEC task forces, elected state officials and corporate representatives close the doors to press and public, and together approve the bills that will be sent out to America. But Americans have no idea they come from ALEC. Unless someone like a Mark Pocan exposes it.
WISCONSIN DEM. REP. MARK POCAN: When I went down to New Orleans, to the ALEC convention last August, I remember going to a workshop and hearing a little bit about a bill they did in Florida and some other states and there was a proposal to provide special needs scholarships. And lo and behold I come back to Wisconsin and what gets introduced? Get ready I know you’re going to have a shocked look on your face: a bill to do just that.
BILL MOYERS: Twenty-six ALEC members in the Wisconsin legislature sponsored that special needs bill, but the real sponsor was ALEC. Pocan knew because the bill bore a striking resemblance to ALEC’s model. Have a look.
But Pocan isn’t only concerned that ALEC sneaks bills into the state legislature. The intent behind the bills troubles him too.
WISCONSIN DEM. REP. MARK POCAN: Some of their legislation sounds so innocuous, but when you start to read about why they're doing it, you know there's a far different reason why something's coming forward and that's important.
I think if the average person knew that a bill like this came from some group like ALEC you'll look at the bill very differently and you might look at that legislator a little differently about why they introduced it.
This is not about education this is not about helping kids with special needs, this is about privatization, this is about corporate profits, and this is about dismantling public education.
BILL MOYERS: The bill passed in the Wisconsin House but failed to make it through the senate. However, in its “Education Report Card,” ALEC boasts that similar bills have passed in Oklahoma, Louisiana, North Carolina and Ohio. ALEC’s education agenda includes online schooling as well. Take a careful look, and you’ll find the profit motive there, too.
LISA GRAVES: What you see is, corporations that have a direct benefit, whose bottom line directly benefits from these bills, voting on these bills in the ALEC taskforce. And so corporations like Connections Academy, corporations like K12, they have a direct financial interest in advancing this agenda.
BILL MOYERS: Those corporations -- Connections Academy and K12, which specialize in online education – can profit handsomely from laws that direct taxpayer money toward businesses like theirs. In 2011 both sat on ALEC's education task force. But the two companies didn’t just approve the model bill. They helped craft it. The proof is in one of ALEC’s own documents. And there’s more to the story.
TENNESSEE SEN. DOLORES GRESHAM: Thank you Mr. Speaker […] House Bill 1030 has to do with the establishment of virtual public schools.
BILL MOYERS: Last year an online schooling bill based on the ALEC model turned up in another state where ALEC has a powerful influence: Tennessee. It was introduced in both the state senate and house by ALEC members. The bill passed, making private corporations eligible for public money for online education. Then within weeks the k-12 corporation got what amounted to a no-bid contract to provide online education to any Tennessee student from kindergarten through 8th grade.
So let’s review: The ALEC member corporations help craft the bill, ALEC legislators introduce it and vote on it, and now there’s a state law on the books that enables one of those corporations to get state money. Game, set, match. But remember: this story isn’t about one company in the education industry and one law in Tennessee. It’s about hundreds of corporations in most every industry, influencing lawmakers in state after state using ALEC as a front.
Here’s another example. The American Bail Coalition, which represents the bail bond industry, pulls no punches about writing ALEC’s model bills itself. In a newsletter a few years back, the coalition boasted that it had written 12 ALEC model bills “fortifying the commercial bail industry.” Here’s Jerry Watson, senior legal counsel for the coalition, speaking at an ALEC meeting in 2007. He has a law to offer.
JERRY WATSON: There is a model bill for you to review if you might be interested in introducing such a measure.
BILL MOYERS: He’ll even help legislators amend it.
JERRY WATSON: Now if you don't like the precise language of these suggested documents, can they be tweaked by your legislative counsel? Well absolutely. And will we work with them on that and work with you and your staff on that? Absolutely.
BILL MOYERS: All the lawmakers have to do is ring him up.
JERRY WATSON: There is a phone number there for our executive offices in Washington D.C. We are prepared to help you and your staff and support this legislation in any way that we can.
BILL MOYERS: And guess what? There’s gold at the end of the rainbow.
JERRY WATSON: But I'm not so crazy so as not to know that you've already figured out that If I can talk you into doing this bill, my clients are going to make some money on the bond premiums.
BILL MOYERS: And corporate interest conflated with the public interest.
JERRY WATSON: But if we can help you save crime victims in your legislative district and generate positive revenue for your state, and help solve your prison overcrowding problem, you don't mind me making a dollar.
BILL MOYERS: ALEC members are seldom as upfront as the American Bail Coalition. In fact, ordinarily ALEC’s hand is very hard to see at all. But if you know where to look, you’ll often find ALEC hiding in plain sight.
LISA GRAVES: ALEC has, in addition to its regular vacation resort trips, it also has special, what it calls boot camps on particular substantive issues.
BILL MOYERS: In March, 2011, ALEC held one of those ‘boot camps’ for legislators at the North Carolina capitol in Raleigh. The subject was so-called “tort reform”: how to keep the average Joe from successfully suing a corporation for damages.
The day after the boot camp two state representatives presented the draft version of a house bill chock full of ALEC priorities. It would, among other things, limit corporate product-liability in North Carolina. One of the representatives, Johnathan Rhyne, was quoted in the Raleigh News Observer saying of ALEC: “I really don’t know much about them.” That’s odd, because Rhyne had been listed as a featured speaker at the ALEC tort reform boot camp. The paper also reported that Rhyne said the bill wasn’t copied from ALEC model legislation. That too, is odd, given how the sections covering product liability could have passed as twins. The bill was controversial; it passed, but only after the product-liability sections were taken out of it. But the tort reformers didn’t give up. They were back a year later. This time with a draft bill aimed only to limit the liability of drug manufacturers. When the public was allowed to comment before a legislative panel, people who had lost loved ones came to testify against the bill. A son who had lost a father.
SURVIVING SON: You know, my dad’s gone. All I can do is be a voice for him, he can’t speak any longer.
BILL MOYERS: A grandfather mourning his granddaughter.
SURVIVING GRANDFATHER: If this bill passes, an innocent victim in NC like Brittany could not hold the manufacturer accountable. Everyone needs to be accountable for their actions.
BILL MOYERS: Unmentioned to those in the room, ALEC was present too, in the form of a lobbyist with drug manufacturing giant GlaxoSmithKline. His name is John Del Giorno.
JOHN DEL GIORNO: Several of the opposing testifiers today brought up very compelling sad, empathetic stories about.
BILL MOYERS: Not only is Glaxo an ALEC corporate member, Del Giorno himself is also a Vice Chairman of ALEC’s national Private Enterprise Board. The North Carolina bill has been tabled for now. So now you’ve seen how it works for corporations. How about for the politicians?
ANDERSON COOPER: Last night was as the President finally acknowledged to day, a shellacking. Republicans gain control of the house picking up 60 seats so far.
BILL MOYERS: When all of the returns were counted on election night 2010, ALEC was a big winner. Eight of the Republican governors elected or re-elected that night had ties to the group.
OHIO GOV. JOHN KASICH: Guess what, I’m going to be governor of Ohio.
SOUTH CAROLINA GOV. NIKKI HALEY: There’s going to be a lot of news, and a lot of observers, that say that we made history.
ARIZONA GOV. JAN BREWER: A clean sweep for Republicans!
BILL MOYERS: And a star was born that election night -- Wisconsin’s new governor, a son of ALEC named Scott Walker.
WISCONSIN GOV. SCOTT WALKER: Wisconsin is open for business!
JOHN NICHOLS: I've known Scott Walker, the governor of Wisconsin for the better part of 20 years and Scott is a classic career politician, and I don't say that in a negative way.
BILL MOYERS: Journalist and Wisconsinite John Nichols has tracked Scott Walker’s career since the 90s, when Walker was a state legislator and an ALEC member.
JOHN NICHOLS: And in 2010 he ran not presenting himself as an ALEC alumni or as an ally of big corporations or big business people outside the state. He ran a very down-home campaign.
WISCONSIN GOV. SCOTT WALKER: This is my lunch. I pack a brown bag each day so I can spend money on the more important things in life, like sending my kids to college.
BILL MOYERS: Nichols says that despite the folksy image, in the years leading up to Walker’s 2010 campaign, he had become a master political fundraiser.
JOHN NICHOLS: And he began to forge incredibly close ties with a lot of corporate interests that he had first been introduced to in ALEC, individuals and groups like the Koch brothers
BILL MOYERS: David and Charles Koch, the billionaire businessmen behind a vast industrial empire are also political activists with an agenda. Their companies and foundations have been ALEC members and funders for years.
JOHN NICHOLS: The Koch brothers were among the two or three largest contributors to Scott Walker's campaign for governor of Wisconsin.
And The Koch brothers get that if you really want to influence the politics of this country, you don’t just give money to presidential campaigns. You don’t just give money to congressional campaign committees. The smart ones, the smart players put their money in the states.
WISCONSIN GOV. SCOTT WALKER: Hi I’m Scott Walker.
JOHN NICHOLS … It’s state government that funds education, social services. And it taxes.
WISCONSIN GOV. SCOTT WALKER: If you want lower taxes and less government I’m Scott Walker, and I know how to get the job done.
JOHN NICHOLS: And so the smart donors can change the whole country without ever going to Washington, without ever having to go through a Congressional hearing, without ever having to lobby on Capitol Hill, without ever having to talk to a President.
WISCONSIN SUPREME COURT JUSTICE SHIRLEY ABRAHAMSON: Please raise your right hand and repeat after me.
BILL MOYERS: The new governor moved quickly with a raft of ALEC-inspired bills. They included one similar to Florida’s Stand Your Ground. Another made it easier to carry concealed weapons. There was a resolution opposing the mandated purchase of health insurance. And of course there was limiting corporate liability. The Wisconsin legislature passed a so-called tort reform measure that included parts of eight different ALEC models. ALEC was elated, praising walker and the legislature in a press release for their, quote -- “immediate attention to reforming the state’s legal system.” But Scott Walker was also shooting for another big ALEC prize.
WISCONSIN GOV. SCOTT WALKER: Now some have questioned why we have to reform collective bargaining.
BILL MOYERS: Taking away workers’ collective bargaining rights. That had long been an ALEC goal. A candid video caught him talking about it with one of his financial backers, a billionaire businesswoman, Diane Hendricks.
WISCONSIN GOV. SCOTT WALKER: We’re going to start in a couple weeks with our budget adjustment bill. The first step is we’re going to deal with collective bargaining for all public employee unions. Because you just divide and conquer.
BILL MOYERS: Despite an extraordinary public outcry, and after a brief but intense political struggle, walker’s anti-collective bargaining measures became state law.
JOHN NICHOLS: It was ALEC's ideas, ALEC's values that permeated the bill and un-did almost 50 years, more than 50 years of collective bargaining law in Wisconsin.
BILL MOYERS: But again, remember, this isn’t just about one state. It’s about every state. Take Arizona – it’s practically an ALEC subsidiary. One report this year found that 49 of Arizona’s 90 legislators are members. And two thirds of the republican leadership are on ALEC taskforces. And of course the governor, Jan Brewer, was an ALEC member too. So not surprising, Arizona is among the states passing ALEC-inspired laws to privatize education at taxpayer expense. And no surprise again, Arizona is also getting ALEC-like laws to limit corporate liability. And Arizona, you’ll recall, made news last year, with a law allowing police to stop someone for looking Hispanic, and detaining them if they weren’t carrying proper papers. Laws that create more arrests can create more revenue for-profit prison companies.
So it probably won’t shock you to learn that Arizona’s immigration law inspired an ALEC model, a version of which was passed in five other states.
ARIZONA DEM. REP. STEVE FARLEY: All of us here are very familiar with ALEC and the influence that ALEC has with many of the members here.
BILL MOYERS: ALEC’s domination of Arizona proved too much for State Representative Steve Farley:
ARIZONA DEM. REP. STEVE FARLEY: I just want to emphasize it’s fine for corporations to be involved in the process. Corporations have the right to present their arguments, but they don’t have the right to do it secretly. They don’t have the right to lobby people and not register as lobbyists. They don’t have the right to take people away on trips, convince them of it, send them back here, and then nobody has seen what’s gone on and how that legislator had gotten that idea and where is it coming from.
BILL MOYERS: Farley has introduced a bill to force legislators to disclose their ALEC ties, just as the law already requires them to do with any lobbyist.
ARIZONA DEM. REP. STEVE FARLEY: All I’m asking in the ALEC Accountability Act is to make sure that all of those expenses are reported as if they are lobbying expenses and all those gifts that legislators received are reported as if they’re receiving gifts from lobbyists. So the public can find out and make up their own minds about who is influencing what.
BILL MOYERS: Steve Farley’s bill has gone nowhere. ALEC, on the other hand, is still everywhere. Still hiding in plain sight. Watch for it. Coming soon to a statehouse near you.
In reporting this story we wanted to talk to ALEC and some of its legislative members as well as to some of its former corporate members. Our requests were either turned down or went unanswered. At one point, we were told that the chairman of ALEC had agreed to an interview. We pursued it but never received a response. Meanwhile, ALEC continues to make news.
You’ve heard about all those bills passed in state after state by republican legislatures to prevent people from voting unless they can produce a government-issued photo id. Many of those voter id laws are based in part on – you guessed it – an ALEC model bill. As you saw in our report, such groups as Color of Change have questioned whether ALEC is an organization with which businesses want to be associated. So far, about 40 corporations have decided their answer was, “no, thanks,” and pulled out of ALEC.
Still, many companies remain ALEC members. And ALEC continues to strengthen its ties to conservatives. Earlier this month ALEC held a high-level, closed door meeting with congressional conservatives in the nation’s capital. The watchdog group Common Cause, has filed a complaint asking the IRS to end ALEC's tax exempt status and force it to register instead as a high powered lobby. Many legislators would then have to tell their constituents what they’ve mostly been able to hide up till now – that via ALEC they’ve been wined and dined by high-powered corporate lobbyists who took a hand in shaping laws in the state where you live.
Here’s an example of what’s at stake. The American Chemistry Council – that’s the trade group for the chemical industry – has used ALEC to press for changes in health and safety rules on toxic chemicals. Earlier this fall the council poured nearly 650,000 dollars into supporting Wisconsin republican Tommy Thompson’s bid for the U.S. Senate this November. By now it won’t surprise you to learn that Wisconsin’s former governor has been a friend of ALEC going all the way back to his days as a state legislator, when he himself was an ALEC member. Take a listen to a speech Thompson made at an ALEC conference in 2002:
FORMER WISCONSIN GOV. TOMMY THOMPSON: I always loved going to those meetings because I always found new ideas. Then I’d take them back to Wisconsin, disguise them a little bit, and declare that’s mine.
BILL MOYERS: Ah yes, Tommy Thompson and so many others. Finally: ALEC, meet ALICE. That’s right, ALEC now has some competition. Inspired by professor Joel Rogers, the Wisconsin champion of open democracy, ALICE is a transparent, non-corporate, out-in-the-open, web-based library of model laws on a range of public interest issues. Alice doesn’t have corporate or billionaire backers. The work is done by volunteers -- so in the constant struggle for democracy is still David versus Goliath. But as you’ll remember from that ancient story, giants don’t always win.
The presidential debates are upon us and many people are describing them as Mitt Romney’s last best chance to establish himself as a serious contender worthy of the White House. It’s happened before. John Kennedy, Ronald Reagan George W. Bush, all bounced higher in the polls after credible debate performances and went on to win the White House.
Whatever the outcome, most agree it’s the debates that will give us our best opportunity to evaluate these candidates, sort out their positions and separate truth from fiction. Not a moment too soon. According to a new survey from the Annenberg Public Policy Center at the University of Pennsylvania, “with a little over a month to go before Election Day, the public has a lot to learn about the 2012 Presidential Race.” Among its findings: Only 51 percent know the Romney-Ryan plan would preserve traditional Medicare for those 55 and older and retain it as an option for those now younger than that.
Only about half knew that Mitt Romney would keep the Bush tax cuts in place. Fewer than half knew that Romney and not Obama had promised to increase defense spending;
Only 23 percent were aware that payroll taxes had decreased during Obama’s term in office. Only slightly more than half knew that Paul Ryan is the Republican vice presidential nominee. The director of the Annenberg Center, Kathleen Hall Jamieson, our master media decoder is back with us. Welcome.
KATHLEEN HALL JAMIESON: Thank you.
BILL MOYERS: So who's responsible for the widespread unawareness or ignorance that you report in your survey? Is it the candidate, the media, or the voter?
KATHLEEN HALL JAMIESON: It's all three. And fortunately, we have the opportunity with presidential debates to do something that reliably increases knowledge. We've been studying presidential debates for a long time as a scholarly community. And to our surprise, we consistently find that those who watch debates, regardless of the level of knowledge they come in with, come out with more accurate knowledge as a general group.
And they do this because those who haven't paid a great deal of attention have a lot to learn. Those of us who've paid a lot of attention still missed things. The news may have covered something one day and we weren't paying a whole lot of attention. Or maybe we got one candidates’ position and we missed the other candidate. In the clash of the candidates, in the clash of ideas offered us by the candidates, we have a chance to make direct comparisons. And when the moderator does a good job on common definitions in a way that clarifies distinctions and also clarifies similarities. One of the really important things about debates that people don't notice is that if the two candidates agree on something, first we rarely talk about it. And hence, we miss the translation between campaigning and governance. Because these candidates tend to act on what they tell you they're going to act on, or at least they tend to try.
BILL MOYERS: What are you going to be looking for in these debates?
KATHLEEN HALL JAMIESON: What I'm going to be looking for are clarifications of major, on major issues. And so I'm going to ask, "Does the public after watching the debates understand the differences in philosophy of government? Do they understand that Governor Romney wants government spending at a lower level of G.D.P. than does President Obama?"
BILL MOYERS: Gross Domestic Product.
KATHLEEN HALL JAMIESON: Gross Domestic Product. Governor Romney wants to bring government spending per G.D.P. to G.D.P. down to 20 percent. And he has a theory that says that if you do that and you do the other things that he's going to do with the tax code that he is going to get economic growth. And so the second thing I'm listening for is, "What is their solution to the situation we're in right now with the economy? How are they going to solve the deficit problem and also increase job creation?"
And I'd like to hear that explained clearly, because they have two very different philosophies. And they see the role of government as very different. Basically, Governor Romney would like to see a lot less government in that process than would President Obama. I think that’s a second area where we should expect to see clarification. Third, I think that if the debates do their job, we're going to be able to answer the question, "What are the sacrifices either one is going to ask us to make?"
BILL MOYERS: Such as reforming Social Security, Medicare, higher taxes, lower taxes?
KATHLEEN HALL JAMIESON: Yes. And on the table are all sorts of things that many people value a great deal and we may not be able to afford anymore. So should we have deductibility for second home mortgages? Should we have deductibility for high-cost homes? Should we have health insurance coverage provided by employers continue to be deductible? If so, for whom, should it be for all? And should we raise the age of entitlement, if so, to what level?" When someone says that about social programs, I want to also hear the answer to the question, "What are you doing with military spending? And how do you justify the tradeoff? We've gotta get the revenue someplace. Where are you willing to cut? And if not, why not, when you're putting really valued things on the table." And simply saying that the wealthy are going to pay more doesn't solve the problem. The wealthy are going to need to pay more, but so is what most people define as the middleclass. And there are going to be cuts across the board, including the military, I think, in order to make this work. I'd like to hear it now, not after the election.
BILL MOYERS: You clearly are placing a lot of faith in the debates.
KATHLEEN HALL JAMIESON: The reason for having confidence the debates will increase knowledge is because they have in the past. The question is how much knowledge can we get from the debates? The reason one has to place confidence in it is that it's all that we've got left. If the public is going to learn, it's not going to learn from advertising. It has some capacity to learn from news. But there isn't a high enough ongoing attention to news to really drive up the level of knowledge we need. What we need from the candidates in the debates is not simply greater adherence to facticity about their own records and their opponents records, but also more disclosure about what they're actually going to do in governance.
BILL MOYERS: But will the candidates be trying to tell the truth? Or will they be trying to persuade the audience to vote for them, even if they have to twist or avoid the truth to do so?
KATHLEEN HALL JAMIESON: The candidates, I think, need to take the risk that the candidate who is willing to tell us hard truths could pick up a part of the electorate that is otherwise disaffected. And also some of those who are still undecided. And if one of the candidates, preferably both, would tell us what the tradeoffs are, what the sacrifices are, and say, "If you elect me, this is what we're going to do because we need to do this for the wellbeing of the country and of future generations," I think that candidate not only could win on those grounds, but also could gain the license to govern without risking that we immediately try to throw his party out of office.
I'm afraid this year that the fact that the candidates are ducking the tough rhetoric means that they're going to have much, much more trouble governing than they otherwise would. And I wish they would have the courage to simply bite the bullet and tell us the truth. If we're not grown up enough as an electorate to accept it, then we deserve the consequence, which is governance we didn't anticipate, sacrifices we didn't anticipate, and a sense of betrayal that the campaign didn't tell us anything that mattered about what our lives would be like in the coming years.
BILL MOYERS: There are instances in which the public is fairly knowledgeable. For example, you report that 89 percent know that the national unemployment rate has been over 8 percent for more than a year. This is the one that's surprised me. You report that 70 percent know that the Supreme Court held that the fine in the Affordable Care Act, also known as Obamacare, was constitutional since it is a tax, a very fine point that I thought would have been lost on a lot of people. How do you explain this degree of knowledge ability on some of these very important issues?
KATHLEEN HALL JAMIESON: In all of these cases, these things affect people's lives. Why the high attention to the Supreme Court ruling? And that's a very complex question, you're certainly right about that. Why the high level of attention to unemployment rate? It affects your life. And as a result, on those things that really matter to you, you're more likely to get it right if there is sustained news attention. And in none of those cases was there a partisan spin that overrode the news coverage. And so if you're trying to hunker down at your little partisan enclave and say, "No, I want to be in denial," there wasn't a partisan take that was there ready to dismiss the fact.
BILL MOYERS: Think about this for a moment. Here we are one month from the election, what's the most effective ad that you've seen that is believable?
KATHLEEN HALL JAMIESON: Let me give you an example for each side. The ad that is being run by the Republicans and there are multiple forms of it, that shows voters who are real people who are looking at the camera and saying that they voted for him. This is Obama, this is President Obama. And they're really disappointed.
FEMALE VOTER: In 2008, I voted for Barack Obama.
FEMALE VOTER: He was new. He had new ideas.
FEMALE VOTER: I think that now we’ve given Obama a fair chance. And I don’t think he’s able to do what we need him to do.
MALE VOTER: The President is doing a mediocre job, and the economy in my opinion is still the same as it was four years ago.
KATHLEEN HALL JAMIESON: What's effective about that is that what Governor Romney has to do is persuade people who voted for President Obama that they shouldn't vote for him again. If the attack is strong on his competence or strong on some facet of his leadership, the danger is people hunker down and defend their original vote. This situates the voter where the voter is right now, It says, "We license you to reject the incumbent." It's an ad that says, "Let's make this a referendum.
BILL MOYERS: What about the pro-Obama ad? What's the most effective ad they've run that is believable?
KATHLEEN HALL JAMIESON: I think the most effective ad that they have is on the air right now. It's capturing a small segment of the statement that Governor Romney made behind closed doors, not realized he was being taped, about the 47 percent. And it puts pictures of people who fall into that 47 percent on the screen. And basically suggests that Governor Romney doesn't want to represent you and you and you.
NARRATOR: Mitt Romney attacked 47 percent of Americans who pay no income tax, including veterans, elderly, the disabled.
MITT ROMNEY: My job is not to worry about those people.
NARRATOR: Doesn’t the president have to worry about everyone?
KATHLEEN HALL JAMIESON: What makes it effective is Governor Romney's voice. And the fact that when you listen to the extended statement, you can make a plausible case that the tone was dismissive. And so the ad reinforces something that people are inclined to believe about a Republican. And they do it by showing you Governor Romney saying something. And now a second factor comes into play. He's said it in private. And when we're judging messages, we have these shortcuts that we just come to trust. Politicians say things in public, I really want to know what they say in private. I'd like to know if they're the same thing. So we get something that supposedly was said in private to wealthy donors, we're more likely to think that it represents what the candidate actually thinks. Remember how Barack Obama was hurt by the statement about clinging to guns and religion, same dynamic. What does he believe behind closed doors about you? And that's the other piece of that that's effective. You can identify with those people on the screen. And you can say even if you do pay federal income taxes, that was really an attack about people like me. I think that's the most effective ad the Obama campaign has run.
BILL MOYERS: Do you think voters expect honesty from the candidates?
KATHLEEN HALL JAMIESON: We know that voters tell us that they don't like attack in politics. And they don't like deception in politics. We know that attack can move voters. And we know that deception can move voters who aren't informed and and anchored in the facts. But we also know that voters value honesty and we know it through indirect evidence. We know that when the Republicans successfully lodge the charge in 2000 that Al Gore wasn't trustworthy, and they did it in part with an ad that played on his statement about playing a role in the creation of the internet, that it hurt perceptions of his trustworthiness and honesty and that it factored in vote decisions.
We know that when we look at the dimensions that come into a vote choice, perceived honesty and trustworthiness are always in that vote choice. And so the question is, "How do you translate your persona into the perception that you are being accurate about the facts?" And here I think each candidate has vulnerabilities going into the debates. Because the debates can expose the fact that the candidates have been engaging in some deceptive communication in their ads.
The Republicans ad that suggests that President Obama has gutted the work requirement in welfare is deceptive. The fact checkers have said that it's deceptive. And it's a clear-cut deception. The Obama campaign has been advertising saying that Governor Romney opposes abortion even in cases of rape or incest. Again, the fact checkers have said, "No, that is not his position."
BILL MOYERS: But were those deceptive ads, one by Obama, one by Romney, nonetheless effective?
KATHLEEN HALL JAMIESON: They are effective unless you know that they're deceptive. And so—
BILL MOYERS: But more people know that they, more people see the ads than know that they're deceptive, than see your fact check.
KATHLEEN HALL JAMIESON: That's correct. But let's look at where we are right now. And then ask me that question again after the debates. What the debates have a potential to do is inform a broad swath of the electorate that it's been misled.
Now imagine that you care about this issue and you feel that you've been misled on the issue. That potentially is consequential in your assessment of those candidates. So debates become the opportunity to catch up with the deceptions. And go back to the primary debates. You saw the best journalists we have holding candidates accountable.
And you saw higher levels of accuracy as a result. Newt Gingrich was claiming that for four consecutive years as speaker he balanced the budget. Well, he'd only been speaker for two of the years that his budget was balanced. He backed of that claim. Debates have the ability to push back on claims that are deceptive and increase the level of accuracy.
BILL MOYERS: Almost you persuade me. But as you know, there's so much talk about how we're in a time of post-truth politics. One of Mitt Romney's own campaign pollsters said that they're not going to let their campaign be dictated by fact checkers. And although he didn't include, call you by name, he includes you, Miss Jamieson, and your colleagues at FactCheck.org.
KATHLEEN HALL JAMIESON: And the Romney campaign, when it posts the big deceptions of the Obama campaign, cites the fact checkers in many of those. And importantly, we know something about fact checking actually mattering. So first we know that campaigns have adjusted their claims. The Obama campaign was saying that Romney had outsourced.
BARACK OBAMA: I am Barack Obama and I approve this message.
NARRATOR: Running for Governor, Mitt Romney campaigned as a job creator.
MITT ROMNEY: I know how jobs are created.
NARRATOR: But as a corporate raider, he shipped jobs to China and Mexico.
KATHLEEN HALL JAMIESON: The fact checkers pushed back on that claim and the Obama campaign changed the ad to the next version saying, "His firm had outsourced."
BILL MOYERS: So fact checking is a protection against this deception?
KATHLEEN HALL JAMIESON: Fact checking is a way of not eliminating the deceptive inferences, but increasing the likelihood that you have more of these statements accurate.
BILL MOYERS: You know, there are some journalists who disagree with you. The media critic Jack Shafer said in a column that quote, "Of course politicians and their campaigns lie. Of course they continue to lie even when called out. If you think otherwise, then they might have been speaking to you. You're looking for truth in all the wrong places." Is that realistic or cynical or both?
KATHLEEN HALL JAMIESON: If you say that candidates are willing to lie in order to be elected, are you saying that when they govern as president, we have just licensed them to lie to us? Because we have said as a public that we think that lying is acceptable and we're willing to be duped. I worry when campaigns assume that deception is just part of normal operating procedure. I wonder whether the candidates actually understand what the knowable is and are in touch with it. I wonder when they're confronted with the need to look at evidence in order to make a judgment whether they're actually going to do that or they're just going to listen to their pollsters and ask the question, "What can I sell?" instead of "What's the right thing to do, given the available, knowable facts on the ground."
If we give up on the idea that campaigns need to adhere to a standard of facticity and we cynically say, "They all lie all the time. And we just have to live with it." We may as well give up on journalism, which is the custodian of the knowable and accountability, which is journalisms primary function. Journalists are supposed to insist, as best they can, that candidates adhere to some sense of the real, as they try to define the problems and offer solutions.
BILL MOYERS: But here's what I think Jack Shafer would say in response to that, because he has written that, "Voters crave rhetoric that stirs their un-fact-checked hearts, as long as the deception is honest, pointing in the direction they want to go, voters are all right with it."
KATHLEEN HALL JAMIESON: See, I wouldn't call that deception honest. But we do know that people crave reinforcement of things they already believe. They're highly uncritical about statements, about their candidate and made by their candidate. They're highly critical about statements about the other, when the other candidates make them on the other side. So we know that. That's part of the way humans process.
But we also know that we're capable of being analytic. We're capable of being dispassionate. We're really good at doing it when we get into a situation in which, for example, we need good medical information. I mean, there are times in which we really do try to adhere to the best available evidence. Tell somebody they've got a diagnosis of cancer and watch how their respect for fact and existing academic research in the medical community rises dramatically.
So it's true that voters do want their predispositions reinforced. But it should also be true that one can campaign in a way that's consistent with those dispositions and a way that's honorable. We had real trouble as a fact-checking community finding anything wrong with Bill Clinton's speech at the convention. Bill Clinton's speech made a compelling case for Barack Obama, a much stronger case than Barack Obama or his campaign has made for his reelection.
And Bill Clinton's speech, with very few, very minor exceptions, passed the toughest of the fact checking tests. When he went on Jon Stewart we found out why. On Jon Stewart, he said he worked on that for three or four weeks. And he consulted policy experts, because he wanted to make sure he got it right.
Now was that a compelling case, Democrats? I think you think it was. Was it factual? Yes, it was. If you are going to be prepared to govern competently, can't you make the case for your election based on a factually defensible argument? And if you can't, why should we vote for you, even if you share our ideology, candidate?
BILL MOYERS: When you took the results of this survey and sat alone with them in your study there in Philadelphia, and you looked at this gap, gulf, were you proud of the American people or not?
KATHLEEN HALL JAMIESON: When you look at the finding about the Supreme Court that shows an understanding of the constitutional issue involved in the ruling that said that that fine was a tax, what was called a fine was a tax, I'm proud of the American people. They understand something very complex. When I look at whether they don't understand where the candidates are on the issues, because the other side has been advertising and talking in speeches and in news in ways that are deceptive, I'm not ashamed of the American people, I'm ashamed of the candidates. And I'm ashamed of journalists for not holding the candidates so accountable that that level of knowledge was pushed up regardless of what the candidates were saying.
BILL MOYERS: Kathleen Hall Jamieson, as usual, it's been helpful. Thank you very much. And we'll see you in a couple of weeks. That’s it for this week. At BillMoyers.com, Laura Flanders has an exclusive, web-only interview with Rashad Robinson, executive director of Color of Change.
RASHAD ROBINSON: We have to do all we can to stay vigilant and hold corporations accountable for how they use their dollars in the public space.
BILL MOYERS: You’ll also find a map that marks the state legislators who are ALEC members. It’s incomplete though, and you can help us fill in the blanks by calling your local representative and asking if he or she belongs. We’ll show you how. On Monday, October first, at 3 PM Eastern Time, I'll participate in a live chat at the BillMoyers.com website and I hope you’ll join me for our own lively conversation. I’ll see you there and see you here, next time.