OLYMPIA, July 15.—The strangest flap yet in this year’s campaign for governor evaporated into thin air Friday when tapes surfaced of an appearance Republican Rob McKenna made Monday in Yakima.
For the last week, the state Democratic Party and the campaign for Democrat Jay Inslee have been issuing a e-storm of press releases, fund-raising letters and even YouTube videos, based on a story that appeared Tuesday in the Yakima Herald-Republic. The story claimed that McKenna had accused the “Seattle media” of misinterpreting his position on health care reform. The Ds began accusing McKenna of flip-flopping and even lying. And as partisans circulated the Yakima story and used it as a jumping-off point for charges of their own, the affair stirred consternation among reporters on this side of the state, all of whom got the story right last June 28.
But now the recordings demonstrate that McKenna never accused the news media of inaccuracy. The whole flap was based on a few ill-chosen words in a newspaper story – a reporter’s mischaracterization of McKenna’s remarks. It is a situation with which all news reporters likely can sympathize, having made the same mistake themselves. But it came in the middle of an election campaign and it triggered a furor. The tapes also demonstrate that McKenna expressed exactly the same position with regard to the Affordable Care Act that he did at his June 28 news conference in Seattle, and there was no flip-flop whatever.
It is an affair that has pushed Washington State Wire reluctantly to front and center, and prompts it today to publish a full transcript of McKenna’s remarks in Yakima. On Thursday, Washington State Wire posted an op-ed piece in which McKenna outlined his position on the Affordable Care Act in greater detail, assuredly a newsworthy statement given the uproar. Washington State Wire immediately invited Inslee campaign spokeswoman Jaime Smith to respond or submit an op-ed on another subject. Smith did not reply. Instead she issued a news release the next morning calling Washington State Wire “a conservative blog.”
After the tapes surfaced Friday afternoon it became clear that the Inslee campaign attack was based on something that never in fact happened. Washington State Wire attempted to contact Smith again to ask whether the campaign would acknowledge its mistake. The Inslee campaign did not respond.
Started With Yakima Story
The affair began when Herald-Republic reporter Mike Faulk covered McKenna’s Monday appearance at a meeting of the Greater Yakima Chamber of Commerce. His story said:
“Democrats and conservative Republicans made political hay out of McKenna’s statement June 28 that Congress shouldn’t repeal the entire act and the individual mandate should be kept ‘for now’ because it is so closely tied to other parts of the reform package.
“Speaking to the Greater Yakima Chamber of Commerce in Yakima on Monday, McKenna said the reports were a misinterpretation by ‘Seattle media’ and that his position on the Affordable Care Act hasn’t changed.”
Washington State Wire, an Internet news site covering legislative politics and policy, chose not to repost a link to the story. There were a couple of red flags. The first was the curious fact that the story contained no direct quotes in which McKenna accused the press of inaccurate reporting. Nor did it provide any basis for the charge.
The second was that the story mischaracterized the statement McKenna made at his June 28 news conference, which Washington State Wire covered. McKenna was among the Republican attorneys general and governors in 26 states who challenged the “individual mandate” in the Affordable Care Act that requires most Americans to purchase health insurance. McKenna that morning was reacting to the Supreme Court’s decision upholding the health care law, and his position was a bit more nuanced than the story indicated.
At that June 28 news conference, McKenna said efforts to overturn the law in Congress were unlikely to succeed, nor were further efforts to overturn the individual mandate. McKenna said there were some elements of the program with which all could agree, and that Washington state should implement the law in ways that reduce cost for taxpayers. Now that recordings of the Yakima event are available, it becomes clear that McKenna said the same thing in Eastern Washington that he did in Seattle. The reason there were no direct quotes regarding the accusation was that there were none.
Story Creates a Frenzy
The whole thing might be chalked up to business as usual in the news trade, the sort of thing that happens more often than anyone likes to admit. The trouble was that it happened at an event no other print reporters covered, in a city 180 miles removed from the state capital, and it involved an accusation reporters might take as an attack on their integrity and regard as patently untrue. The moment the Yakima story appeared, Democrats trumpeted it in every possible venue and did their best to make it a campaign issue. The McKenna campaign told reporters the Yakima story got it wrong and began a hunt for the tapes. Meanwhile the Inslee campaign immediately began issuing daily news releases headlined “Rob McKenna Flip-Flop Watch.”
“McKenna’s campaign continues to say the media is to blame for their not-so-articulate responses,” said one Inslee communique.
The next one said, “Now, in just the span of a few days, McKenna has blamed ‘the Seattle media’ for his constant flip-flopping on health reform, and his spokesman has blamed the Yakima media for McKenna lashing out at Seattle reporters.”
Democratic spokesman Benton Strong posted a statement on the state party website that said in part, “Now he was supposedly misrepresented, except that he wasn’t. …Will he ever tell us the truth?”
State Democratic Party chairman Dwight Pelz sent out a fund-raising letter that said, “Republican Rob McKenna gets confused when it comes to health care reform. That’s understandable – he changes his position every time he talks about it. First, he joined the lawsuit to overturn the law. Then, he said he accepted the Supreme Court decision upholding it. Now, he’s blaming the media for misrepresenting his position.”
Pelz also posted a seven-second YouTube video: “Rob, everyone’s confused. Do you support repealing the Affordable Care Act, yes or no?”
Amid the barrage, some reporters apparently bought in and assumed the Yakima story was fact. A News Tribune columnist said reporters in Seattle must have misinterpreted McKenna’s comments because “they wrote down what he said.”
A story in the Olympian reported on “McKenna’s shifting claims,” and stated flatly, “McKenna on Monday told a Yakima Chamber of Commerce audience that his initial remarks at the June 28 news conference were miscast by Seattle reporters.”
The odd thing about the flap is that Democrats had an independent way of confirming the truth or fiction of the Yakima Herald-Republic story before they went to war. The state Democratic Party this year has routinely been sending “trackers” to record every public appearance made by McKenna and U.S. Senate candidate Michael Baumgartner. Apparently one was in the audience at the Yakima gathering. Faulk himself noted in a blog posting that the state Democratic Party issued a news release containing direct quotes from McKenna’s remarks that did not appear in any news coverage. That suggests the Democrats themselves had a recording and might have been able to establish for themselves that there was no change in McKenna’s position. But for some reason, the alarm bells didn’t go off, or if they did, it didn’t matter.
Aiming for Confusion
Once the Democrats began pumping out the press releases, the McKenna campaign began a days-long search for recordings of the event. They were released to reporters Friday.
Campaign spokesman Charles McCray said he finds it amazing the way the story took on a life of its own. He said the recordings ought to be enough to settle the matter, though the way politics works, you never know.
“Rob’s position has been consistent all along, and we expect Inslee and his partisan allies to promote this confusion,” he said. “The Democrats only benefit by muddying the waters.”
What Actually Was Said
A video recording demonstrates McKenna never told the Yakima audience that his initial remarks at the June 28 news conference had been miscast by Seattle reporters. What happened was that a member of the audience posed a question after McKenna finished speaking: “You recently changed your position on the affordable health care issue. Could you expound on that, please?”
McKenna replied, “I haven’t changed my position. I was asked, ‘do I think that they are going to repeal the Affordable Care Act in Congress?’ And my answer was, they don’t have the votes to do that. So the Affordable Care Act will have to be addressed one section at a time, which is what they have been doing. That’s what I was saying, because I was asked, ‘Do you think Congress is going to go forward and repeal it, can they do it?’ And I said I don’t think they can, because of who the president is and the nature of the United States Senate.
“But there are clearly provisions in the Affordable Care Act that aren’t going to work and are going to cost us too much money, just as there are provisions I think we all could agree that we could support. I mean, after all, it is 2,700 pages long. I worked very, very hard on that case, and I was one of the first A.G.s to bring that case because of my deep concerns with the way that law would restructure American government and give Congress brand-new powers it never had before. We won on the Commerce Clause issue and we won on the Medicaid issue. And I’m here to tell you we are not going to expand Medicaid to a level that we can’t afford.
“So I wish I had been better prepared with a more, better articulated [answer] than I gave at the press conference, but frankly I didn’t think we were going to lose. So I was not ready for that question, because we felt pretty good about where we were, and the chief justice threw us a real curveball. It really surprised us, but we are publishing an op-ed piece which will lay this out very, very clearly, that I think should make you feel better about it. So my apologies for not being adequately clear on that, but we continue to have very strong concerns about how much this is going to cost the state and how we are going to implement it successfully.”
A Few Follow-Ups
After the event, Faulk followed up with a few questions of his own, evidently assuming incorrectly that McKenna had contradicted the position he had expressed at the June 28 news conference. An audio recording demonstrates what might best be described as a disconnect, because Faulk’s questions were jumbled. The key thing any reporter might notice, though, is that Faulk asked no clarifying questions before concluding that McKenna was accusing the press of inaccuracy.
McKenna explained, “Well, the question was, you know, is it going to be repealed? And my point was that they are not going to repeal it all at once because the votes aren’t there in Congress. There are elements of the plan which everybody supports, so I think what they’re going to do is that they are going to address most problematic pieces chunk by chunk. You know, for instance, the mandate is highly problematic. It is very unpopular, and I don’t think it is going to work. You’ll have people not buying insurance because they think the premiums are too high, and they would rather self-insure and are just going to pay the penalty.”
Faulk said, “I thought, at least what I gathered from that, was that it was like they were saying it was time to move on.”
McKenna replied, “That was the way that the Seattle press reported it, but what I was saying was, because the way I heard the question, it was, ‘Are they going to repeal it all at once in one vote?’ And I said there are parts of the law, and I said this from the beginning, which everybody can support, like eliminating lifetime caps. So the thing that they need to do is to address the most problematic pieces of it and address them piece by piece.”
Faulk said, “Well, it seemed to me from the language, though, that it was fairly definitive, I mean I read from it, essentially, that we have a process here, it was followed through, the message I got was, essentially, let’s not be spoilsports about this, it’s settled, let’s move on.”
McKenna said, “I also said there are parts of the law that are still going to be objectionable and will have to be addressed. They are not going to work. They are very unpopular with the public. You know that Congress, they have already been rolling back parts of the law, the requirement for that Form 990 that has to be filed by every employer for everyone under [inaudible] percent. So you, look, in 2,700 pages there are pieces that are clearly not workable, and there are pieces that won’t work, so I’m predicting that they are going to address the law section by section.”
And from that relatively innocuous conversation came a story that roiled the state for a week.