OLYMPIA – Candidates with at least half a brain rarely pick a fight they cannot win. So it seemed odd last week when a Seattle television station reported Dino Rossi was challenging Sen. Patty Murray on veterans issues and alleging the federal government was “spending recklessly” on veterans programs.
Not only does Murray have a campaign commercial with a slew of veterans singing her praises, but she has a reputation for actually working on an issue to which most members of Congress merely pay lip service. It’s a recognized strength, sort of like recruiting point guards at Gonzaga.
And saying Uncle Sam spends recklessly on veterans is a bit like saying mothers spend recklessly on medicine for their children.
Yet a story on Seattle’s KOMO-TV on Tuesday seemed to have Rossi dissing Murray and veterans programs. But did he?
Rossi did not make those accusations on camera. Instead, a reporter attributed the reckless spending comment to “Rossi’s campaign” and interviewed Deryl McCarthy, described as a veteran and Rossi supporter, who said: “Are we spending the money and getting the biggest bang for the buck? No. We can do better and Dino will do better.”
The Murray campaign counterattacked quickly the next day, demanding Rossi explain exactly where the country spends too much on veterans. Between previously scheduled stops to highlight her work for current and former members of the military, Murray squeezed in a telephone news conference with three veterans who denounced Rossi.
But it was clear something was odd when the first question came from KOMO reporter Bryan Johnson, who said he didn’t do Tuesday’s story but had talked to Rossi on Wednesday. And Rossi, Johnson said, contended he never said such a thing and that veterans programs were one of their rare points of agreement.
Rossi’s campaign quickly pumped out a statement that attempted to spin the issue toward his main theme of a profligate Congress:
“Our nation made a promise to provide for our veterans in return for their service to protect our country, and that promise must be kept,” it said. “The main threat to our veterans programs right now is the enormous amount of spending and debt that Patty Murray has voted for: the massive bailouts, the failed stimulus bill, the earmarks and other wasteful spending which is jeopardizing Congress’s ability to provide our veterans the benefits they’ve earned.”
KOMO followed up its original story with Johnson’s report in which he more clearly delineated Rossi’s complaint of deficit spending from veterans programs, but didn’t retract the original.
Still campaigning with veterans Thursday, Murray said Rossi was just trying to twist things around after the furor erupted. “We know we have to cut our budgets,” she said, and that’s being done on many fronts. “But I draw the line when it comes to where our investments have to be, and for me, that’s taking care of our veterans in a time of war. There is no question, and nobody can question my credentials or think I misspoke.”
Murray wins this fight – it’s not even a TKO – which returns to the question why Rossi even got into this ring.
KOMO posted uncut video of its seven-minute interview with McCarthy, a veteran and Rossi supporter but clearly not a polished speaker. (A Rossi spokeswoman said he’s someone they referred to the reporter but not a member of the campaign.) In it, McCarthy never uses the phrase reckless spending. He does say “willy-nilly,” and the station maintains the original story conveyed the essence of his comments.
The full tape indicates McCarthy is calling for better oversight of the VA by Congress, not cuts to any program in particular: “First of all, willy-nilly stop spending money, but that’s a general term not a VA term. Stop, slow down … and let’s provide real oversight.”
Clearly not a story destined to win an Emmy. But the Rossi campaign appears to have been drawn in by a chance to get some counterpunches into the original TV report that focused on Murray and veterans. Things went downhill from there, perhaps because they sent in a featherweight when a heavyweight was needed. Given the topic, perhaps they should have heeded the advice the computer offers near the end of the movie “War Games”: “The only winning move is not to play.”