COLORADO — One of the most colorful and competitive GOP primary battles is being waged in the conservative bastion of Colorado Springs, and the contest has produced some interesting—if not always excellent—coverage from the local media.
The June 26 primary in the 5th Congressional District pits incumbent Rep. Doug Lamborn against challenger Robert Blaha. Lamborn, first elected in 2006, is consistently ranked among Congress’s most conservative members, a distinction he frequently touts. (He’s also acquired a reputation for unusual gaffes.) In 2008, Lamborn won a divisive primary with 45 percent of the vote, and this year Blaha, a wealthy businessman with his own conservative bona fides, is expected to give the incumbent a tough fight. Independent polls are scarce, but in April Blaha’s campaign released poll results showing him within a few points of Lamborn. The victor will undoubtedly go to Washington, as a Democrat has not won the House in this Republican stronghold—the home of the evangelical mega-organization Focus on the Family, Fort Carson, and the U.S. Air Force Academy—in at least 40 years
So there’s a lot at stake, and a role for the press to play in helping voters understand and evaluate the candidate’s messages. Against that backdrop, it was encouraging to see the Colorado Springs Gazette embrace a new format: 45-minute webcast interviews with each of the candidates, in which political reporter John Schroyer asked his own questions of Blaha and Lamborn and also relayed questions from readers and viewers. (The newspaper had actually hoped to conduct a debate, but Lamborn said he would participate only if he and Blaha were interviewed separately, and only if his interview followed Blaha’s. The Gazette agreed to Lamborn’s conditions, though it also allowed Blaha to respond to Lamborn in print later the same day.)
The lengthy interviews served the candidates—and voters—by offering an open platform to discuss their records and their positions on a number of topics, including energy, the budget, the deficit ceiling, term limits, and defense spending. Too often, though, that platform was entirely unimpeded. Consider this discussion about whether letting the Bush tax cuts expire for the wealthiest taxpayers—as President Obama favors—would hurt small businesses:
Schroyer: “Why do you think anyone would support repealing the tax cuts?”
Lamborn: “Barack Obama and some Senate Democrats have said, ‘Let’s let those who make less money have the tax cuts, but make those who make over a certain amount— $250,000 or whatever—pay the higher taxes so they won’t have the tax cuts. The trouble is, 80 percent of the people who have filed in those higher tax ranges get their money from small business. It’s not just the movie stars—it’s the dry cleaner on the corner, the gas station, the retail shop at the mall. They may have four or five employees they are paying out of that $400,000. That’s actually a business income, not personal income—that’s Sub Chapter S. Eighty percent of that money, according to The Wall Street Journal, is from small business, and if you raise taxes on the higher amounts on returns, you’re really hitting small business.”
Obviously, an interviewer can’t be prepared with the facts to challenge every slanted statement a politician might make in real time, and Schroyer’s lack of on-air polish, which might have contributed to his overly deferential attitude, was both evident and understandable.
Still, these talking points about small businesses have been at the center of the tax cut debate for a few years, and much has been written about how they hold up—or don’t. Here’s Tax.com analyst Martin Sullivan writing about some new Treasury data in September 2011:
Of all the income affected by changing the top two rates, only about one-fifth is passthrough employer business income. In other words, 80 percent of income benefiting from the rate cut has no direct impact on employers owning passthrough businesses. Keeping tax rates low for business owners who have lots of other income is not an efficient way of getting those owners to create jobs. There are far more cost-effective approaches.
And later that month, Tax Policy Center co-director William Gale offered these thoughts:
[T]he effective tax rate on small business income is likely to be zero or negative, regardless of small changes in the marginal tax rates. This is for three reasons. First, small businesses can expense (immediately deduct in full) the cost of investment. This alone brings the effective tax rate on new investment to zero, regardless of the statutory rate. Second, if they can finance the investment with debt, the interest payments would be tax deductible, making the effective tax rate negative. Third, they can deduct wage payments in full, so the marginal tax rate should have minimal impact on hiring.
In other words, while plenty of people—including, certainly, most Republican primary voters—prefer lower tax rates, the idea that higher top-end rates create unique problems for job-creating small business owners doesn’t really hold up.
The fallout from Schroyer’s interview with Lamborn has focused on a bizarre but entertaining twist involving some maladroit comments that prompted Lamborn’s predecessor, Joel Hefley, to call the congressman a “knucklehead”—and Lamborn in turn to complain that the Gazette treated him “shabbily,” and to urge other candidates to turn down the paper’s interview requests. That move earned Lamborn a deserved lampooning from both the Gazette’s editorial page and the Denver Post. But there’s room here for the Gazette to deliver a different sort of follow-up: a report that sets the record straight on the possible impacts of a shift on tax rates, and brings some needed scrutiny to the candidates’ other claims as well.
One model for that approach was offered by a local TV station, KOAA News 5, which earlier this month produced a pair of “Truth Checks” assessing the veracity of Lamborn and Blaha’s TV ads. The tax cut debate—and policy debates in general—were not addressed in the ads, which focused instead on personal attacks. Still, reporter Zach Thaxton’s clear, concise segments—which offered thorough explanations of what was true, what was false, and what was true-with-caveats—are a good example of how to use reporting to provide critical context and set the record straight.
Here’s Thaxton’s report on a Lamborn ad:
And here’s the segment on a Blaha ad:
Campaign coverage needs to do more than referee mudslinging, of course, even if that’s all the campaigns are offering. But the spirit behind these segments will serve journalists well—whether the subject is personal attacks or policy debates—from now through Election Day.