Analysis: Candidates both claim monopoly on the truth

Above left, Democrat Dana Balter; at right, U.S. Rep. John Katko, R-Camillus. The two candidates for New York’s 24th Congressional District are at odds over what each claim are fundamental truths.

There’s a piece of conventional wisdom: “When you have the facts on your side, pound the facts. When you don’t have the facts, pound the table.”

What happens when two opposing camps both claim to have the facts on their side? Dana Balter and U.S. Rep. John Katko are both doing plenty of table pounding, the sound of which will more resemble a creeping artillery barrage as we near Election Day. Military writers famously describe the fog of war, a proverbial (and before smokeless powder sometimes literal) impenetrable haze of confusion that descends on a battlefield or theater of operation. The CNY fog is thick and getting thicker while each belligerent blames the other for the conditions.

In the first real clash of their rematch campaign, Balter and Katko last week traded barbs and television advertisements. Katko went first, releasing a 30-second TV spot that is currently airing. The ad puts a very fine point on Katko’s bipartisan record, the beginning of a tug of war in which the candidates will seek to define each other.

“His bipartisan approach to governing has yielded significant results, as Katko has become one of the most productive members in the House, with over 35 bills passed by the House with several signed into law by presidents from both parties,” the Katko campaign said. You can call John Katko many things, but a radical he is not.

In an interview last week, Katko said he’s proud of his bipartisanship, because one can “lead out of crisis with bipartisanship.”

“I embrace facts and my record — (Balter) doesn’t like facts,” Katko told The Palladium-Times. “She’s saying I’m in Trump’s pocket. I want him to be successful, just like I wanted President Obama to be successful. How can you reconcile that I’m ‘in Trump’s pocket’ while at the same time being one of the most bipartisan members of Congress?”

Right on cue, the Balter campaign responded Friday with a TV spot of its own that seeks to “set the record straight.”

“Katko and Washington Republicans designed the (2017 legislation) to fully dismantle the Affordable Care Act and rip away protections for people with pre-existing conditions,” the Balter campaign said. The 2017 legislation they refer to is the 2017 Tax Cuts and Jobs Act — more on that in a moment.

“When it matters, John Katko votes with Donald Trump,” intones the Balter ad’s narrator, complete with grainy, monochromatic photographs of Katko looking grim as the minor-key soundtrack plinks out a sad piano line. The most pointed criticism rips Katko for his alleged complicity as national Republicans and the White House continue to try to erase the Affordable Care Act (ACA).

Katko allegedly “voted with Trump to sabotage the ACA,” according to Balter’s ad, and end protections for pre-existing conditions because of his support of the 2017 Tax Cuts and Jobs Act. Many Republicans cite that tax bill as the signature achievement of Donald Trump’s first term, and some Democrats would bitterly agree. The bill also contained a de facto repeal of the ACA’s penalty for not abiding the federal individual mandate on health insurance.

“(Balter) mischaracterizes each of these votes, but the pre-existing conditions claim is complete inaccurate,” a Katko campaign official told The Palladium-Times, saying Katko has “repeatedly broke with his party’s attempts to repeal the ACA because a suitable replacement was not ready to go.”

The Katko campaign specifically pointed to his support of H.R. 986, the Protecting Americans with Pre-Existing Conditions Act of 2019. The bill would do what the name suggests. Katko also voted to “condemn the Trump Administration’s legal campaign to take away Americans’ health care” and called for the Department of Justice to reverse its position in the latest and largest ACA lawsuit, the 20-state Texas v. United States. (NOTE: This is a different case than United States v. Texas, which deals with immigration.) In Texas v. United States, attorneys argued that with the individual mandate penalty eliminated, the entire ACA should be deemed unconstitutional and axed. Balter claims this was a deliberate attempt, using the Tax Cuts and Jobs act as cover, to attack the ACA.

“It’s like he wants us to ignore what the implications of his votes are,” Balter campaign manager Brexton Isaacs told the Pall-Times over the weekend.

So, armed with that information: Did Katko vote in 2017 to take away pre-existing condition protections? No, not really, but his vote moved along a component of a larger Republican effort to go after the ACA which, if successful, could pose a threat to pre-existing condition protections. That end reportedly is not what Katko intended. He “opposes the individual mandate but has repeatedly voted against his party’s efforts to repeal the ACA in its entirety,” a top Katko aide told the Pall-Times.

Courts are still fighting Texas v. United States and likely will be for some time. The ACA is still standing. If a politician votes for something, but it never actually happens, did he really support it? Of course he did, says the Balter campaign, and it tells you everything you need to know about Katko’s priorities. Each side has committed to their axis of advance.

“Balter is an unabashed left winger,” Katko said. “She can’t attack me on my record so she says, ‘Trump sucks and if you support him you suck.’”

Republicans want to keep this seat, and Katko as a fourth-term Congressman would be in a strong position to hold Capitol Hill leadership roles within his party and committees. The GOP will attempt to paint Balter as out of touch with central New York, and too extreme for an electorate that has traditionally sent moderate white men to Washington. She’s got the wrong temperament, they’ll cry, and too ideological. The same was said about many Watergate Babies.

“Dana is talking about Katko’s record — his record of voting with Trump to give massive tax breaks to giant corporations, his record of voting with Trump to sabotage the ACA,” Issacs said. “His record of endorsing a president who continually puts himself above the rule of law, who botched the coronavirus response and refuses to take action against Russia for putting bounties on the heads of Americans soldiers.”

So what does John Katko think of Donald Trump? We asked, he answered.

“The president will not be many people’s best friend; he has an abrasive personality, and he should be put in Twitter timeout,” Katko said. “But you can’t deny the fact that the economy was on the right track. It’s not so much about voting for (Trump) or for (Democrat Joe Biden) as it is about voting against Trump. What’s at stake here? Government run health care, higher taxes, defunding the police — those are serious issues.”

Katko said he “highly doubts” he would ever rescind his January endorsement of Trump’s re-election, but it’s wise to “never say never.”

“It’s about party philosophy more than anything, and I’d much rather stick with Republicans than the Democrats and what they represent,” Katko said. “(Balter) has said she supports New York’s bail reform, she’s acknowledging she’ll raise taxes. You may not want to have (Trump) over to your house for dinner, but from a policy standpoint you have to balance it against the far left agenda.”

A politician finding a creative way to frame an issue so it damns their opponent is nothing new, but in a post-Donald Trump world the general concept of a trustworthy government and candidates is quickly eroding. There emerges a two-pronged problem: Americans can either decide that no one is trustworthy and tune out entirely, or they’ll seek out news that affirms their preconceptions. Both are bad.

Dana Balter and John Katko are both asking you to trust them. Katko says he’s earned it; Balter say he’s wasted it. It’s often politically useful to define issues in such black-and-white, win-or-lose terms, but one needs to just scratch the surface of electoral claims to watch the fog of war billow.

Seth Wallace is the managing editor of The Palladium-Times. He lives in the city of Oswego.

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