In Sunday's Democratic presidential debate, just two days before Michigan's primary takes place, Hillary Clinton dropped a 'gotcha' bomb on Bernie Sanders, saying Sanders "was against the auto bailout." (Clinton is also running ads on Michigan radio making the same accusation.) From the transcript of the debate:
CLINTON: Well -- well, I'll tell you something else that Senator Sanders was against. He was against the auto bailout. In January of 2009, President-Elect Obama asked everybody in the Congress to vote for the bailout.
The money was there, and had to be released in order to save the American auto industry and four million jobs, and to begin the restructuring. We had the best year that the auto industry has had in a long time. I voted to save the auto industry.
He voted against the money that ended up saving the auto industry. I think that is a pretty big difference.
Sanders' reply was cut off:
SANDERS: Well, I — If you are talking about the Wall Street bailout, where some of your friends destroyed this economy...
CLINTON: You know...
SANDERS: ... through — excuse me, I’m talking.
Sanders recovered from the interruption and tried again:
Your story is for — voting for every disastrous trade agreement, and voting for corporate America. Did I vote against the Wall Street bailout?
When billionaires on Wall Street destroyed this economy, they went to Congress and they said, “please, we’ll be good boys, bail us out.” You know what I said? I said, “let the billionaires themselves bail out Wall Street.” It shouldn’t be the middle class of this country.
CLINTON: OK, so...
There was another interruption as Sanders tried to respond, then:
SANDERS: Wait a minute. Wait. Could I finish? You’ll have your turn, all right?
But ultimately, if you look at our records, I stood up to corporate America time and time again. I went to Mexico. I saw the lives of people who were working in American factories and making $0.25 an hour.
I understood that these trade agreements were going to destroy the middle class of this country. I led the fight against us (sic). That is one of the major differences that we have.
Clinton dropped a 'gotcha' bomb, saying two days before the Michigan primary that Sanders is against auto companies and workers, and then as Sanders tried to respond he was strategically interrupted, preventing him from effectively correcting the record.
So What Are The Facts?
In December of 2008 there was a bill to specifically help the auto industry. H.R. 7321 (110th): Auto Industry Financing and Restructuring Act was a $14 billion plan that passed the House but was filibustered by Senate Republicans.
Sanders supported that bill and voted to break the filibuster. From Vermont Public Radio:
Senator Bernie Sanders voted against the $700 billion bail out of the financial services industry but he says this package is different:
(Sanders) "The problem is if you don't act in the midst of a growing recession what does it mean to create a situation where millions of more people become unemployed and that could spread and I have serious concerns about that I think it would be a terrible idea to add millions more to the unemployment rolls."
Then, in January 2009 the auto rescue funds were folded into part of the huge, $700 billion "Wall Street bailout" bill. The Washington Post writes in, "The Hillary Clinton-Bernie Sanders clash over the auto bailout, explained":
Clinton and Sanders were both in the Senate at the time, and contrary to what Clinton implied Sunday, both supported the idea of an auto bailout.
... Sanders argued that letting the auto industry go under was too big of a risk for middle-class workers -- it could lower wages across all sectors of the economy and have a ripple effect on states like Vermont that were fairly far removed from the auto industry.
... But Sanders was vehemently against the larger $700 billion bailout to prop up the banks. (As evidenced by his presidential campaign, Sanders is no fan of Wall Street.) So he voted against the bank bailout.
The bank bailout was so big it had to be doled out in portions. In January 2009, Senate Republicans tried to block the Treasury Department from releasing the second half of the money, some of which was designated for the auto industry. Sanders, based on his opposition to the Wall Street bailout, voted against releasing that money as well.
At the time of this January Wall Street bailout vote the public had been learning about Wall Street's huge bonuses even as bailouts were required. Headlines were informing the public that "Banks That Got $188 Billion in Bailout Money This Year Paid Out $1.6 Billion to Top Execs Last Year" and "75% Of Latest Bank Of America Bailout Used To Pay Merrill Lynch Bonuses."
This second Wall Street bailout vote, which contained auto bailout money, occurred in the context of a public upset (to say the least) about huge bonuses for the banksters who had crashed the economy, and Sanders opposed it. The Detroit Free Press, in "Explaining Hillary Clinton's, Bernie Sanders' votes on the auto bailout," explains this complicated second vote further:
The $82 billion that helped finance the bankruptcy of General Motors, Chrysler, their finance subsidiaries -- GMAC and Chrysler Financial -- and a handful of large suppliers were part of a much larger Troubled Asset Relief Program (TARP) that covered more than $700 billion that went to bail out the largest banks, and AIG, the insurance giant that has issued credit default swaps that came due when the banks could not cover their losses on mortgage-backed securities.
In short, a Senator or congressman could not vote to rescue GM and Chrysler without voting to provide the money to keep the nation's largest investment banks from failing.
Sen. Clinton voted yes. Sen. Sanders voted no.
Politico summarized: "Sanders was supportive of the bill that would have bailed out the auto companies. So while Sanders might not have voted for the bill that ultimately provided funds to the auto industry, he did support bailing out the automakers."
But two days before the Michigan primary Clinton turned Sanders' opposition to the Wall Street bailout into a Sanders vote "against the auto bailout."
Some in the media mistakenly reported that Sanders replied talking about Wall Street instead of responding about the auto bailout, thinking these were separate bills. For example, Richard Wolffe at The Guardian, "Sanders, standing in Flint, had no answer for the vote – other than to retreat into his corner opposing Wall Street’s bailout."
Initially the Sanders campaign tweeted, "From the @WashingtonPost: "Sanders is actually on the record as supporting the auto bailout. He even voted for it."https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/the-fix/wp/2016/03/07/the-hillary-clinton-bernie-sanders-debate-over-the-auto-bailout-explained/"
Later the campaign issued a statement, "Clinton’s Claims on Auto Industry ‘Not True’"
One day before Michigan Democrats go to the polls, Bernie Sanders on Monday campaigned for president in Michigan and set the record straight on Hillary Clinton’s dishonest distortion of his record on an automobile industry rescue package.
... used a Sunday night debate in Flint, Michigan, to disingenuously mischaracterize Sanders record on the auto industry. In fact, Sanders voted for the carmaker bailout.
... “It is absolutely untrue to say I voted against helping the automobile industry and workers," Sanders told the Grand Rapids, Michigan, television station.
... Sanders said, Clinton “went out of her way to mischaracterize” his record of support for auto workers. “There was one vote in the United States Senate to support the automobile industry and, of course, I voted for it. To say otherwise is simply not telling the truth,” he said.
... To read more on Sanders' record of supporting the auto bailout, click here.
Clinton's last-minute, misleading accusation is a tactic known as "Gotcha politics." This is a tactic where a politician attempts to lure or entrap an opponent by use of a supposed fact, gaffe, mistake or statement that makes it appear the opponent is a hypocrite or untrustworthy. Then the politician "pounces," hence the term "gotcha." It is often used just before an election so the opponent has little time to respond with the correct facts. The tactic depends on voters not receiving accurate information in time.
The debate was Sunday. Tuesday is the Michigan primary. This leaves little time for Sanders to explain the reality of Clinton's "Sanders is against autos and auto workers" implication. This likely means it will cause votes that might have gone to Sanders in the primary to instead go to Clinton, or to just stay home. As the Washington Post explanation puts it, "[I]t seems like she's willing to take the gamble that fact checkers may call her out for her tactic Sunday -- but that voters won't."
Is There A Cost?
This kind of "90's-style" politics is a "scorched earth" tactic, leaving little goodwill in its wake. In the short term it might gain votes, even win a primary, but those votes bring with them longer-term costs.
Over time, as the fact-checking of Clinton's "gotcha" accusation unfolds, Clinton risks increasing voters' perception that she has a "trust" problem. Winning a primary with a tactic that risks increasing voter perception that she can't be trusted could cost her.
Worse, many voters are tired of this "old-style" politics of misleading voters in order to gain votes at any cost. They prefer to hear accurate information and real policy discussion that addresses the country's real problems. This is part of the reason Sanders' campaign is drawing such enthusiasm. Gaining votes by accusing Sanders of something being "against" auto companies and workers could cause many Sanders voters to decide not to support Clinton if she becomes the party's nominee for president.
'Gotcha' politics doesn't just harm the candidate using it in the longer term, it also breeds public cynicism about the political system in general. Clinton supporter Lanny Davis wrote a 2006 book, "Scandal: How 'Gotcha' Politics Is Destroying America." The book's Amazon description explains, "Davis tells us how this poisonous atmosphere is damaging not just politics but American society as a whole."
The stakes are very high in this election, and if Clinton is the nominee she is going to need goodwill – and all the votes she can get. Isn't there a higher road with lower risks that Clinton can follow in this campaign?