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Mellman: When attack ads cross the line

There ought to be a line.

I've defended negative ads here in the past and I do believe they can provide legitimate information that is actually useful to voters.

But there ought to be a line we don't cross between truth and fiction, between legitimate debate and simple demagoguery.

We can debate whether tax cuts that mainly benefit the rich are good for the economy or bad; we can debate whether the minimum wage creates jobs and increases incomes or hurts business; we can debate whether cutting Social Security is a reasonable policy or not.

But we should not be inventing concepts out of whole cloth to purposely mislead voters.

I believe that's what Republicans have done, and are now doing, with their so-called sanctuary city attacks.

The term itself has no consistent or legal definition, rendering it ripe for misinterpretation.

Many people wrongly believe that if an undocumented person commits a crime and then makes his or her way to a sanctuary city they will not be arrested for the murder, rape or robbery they have committed.

That is absolutely and completely false.

There is not a single jurisdiction in the country where anyone who commits a crime, whether undocumented immigrant, legal immigrant or natural born citizen, is not subject to arrest and prosecution. To suggest otherwise is so grossly untrue as to be nothing short of an outright lie.

It's amazing that anyone believes such a situation is possible, which may be why the mainstream media has largely ignored the vast GOP dissembling. But people do believe in the lie.

And many Republican ads take advantage of that misunderstanding, reinforcing a dishonest perception.

Rep. Kevin Cramer's (R-N.D) recent ad attacking Sen. Heidi Heitkamp (D-N.D.) (full disclosure: she's a client) says "Federal tax dollars shouldn't go to cites that hide illegal immigrants, especially those who commit violent crimes." In his next breath, he accuses Heitkamp of funding cities that "ignore the rule of law."

In fact, violent criminals are subject to the rule of law in every city, county and state in America. No state, city or county has a policy of hiding criminals - neither those in the country legally, nor those here illegally.

Since judges have repeatedly found Cramer's position illegal, if anyone is flouting the rule of law, it's him.

By conflating several more unrelated issues, Republican John Chrin's attack on Rep. Matt Cartwright (D-Pa.) (a race in which I am not involved), is even more clearly dishonest. 

Recounting a horrific crime, the ad claims, "A five-year-old girl raped by an illegal, given sanctuary in Philadelphia. Matt Cartwright supports sanctuary cities and voted to give illegals amnesty."

The implication here is as clear as it is absurd. A child rapist fled to Philadelphia, where he was given sanctuary, avoided prosecution and benefited from amnesty.

Completely false, but clearly implied.

Confusion is evident in voters' responses to poll questions - and even in the questions pollsters write.

A much-discussed Harris Harvard poll found 80 percent thought cities that arrest illegal immigrants for crimes should "be required to turn them over to immigration authorities."

Without getting into the details, this question misunderstands the issues implicated here, while implying that there are circumstances under which presumably serious criminals might not be turned over to authorities.

In response to a Quinnipiac University poll question, 56 percent favored what so-called sanctuary cities do, while 41 percent favor the Trump/GOP policy.

A Fox News poll found 41 percent favored taking away federal funds from "so-called sanctuary cities that refuse to assist federal authorities detain and deport illegal immigrants," while 53 percent were opposed to punishing these cities. 

Republicans can only whip up large swaths of the public against these policies by misleading voters.

Using vocabulary like "sanctuary cities" that is misleading, in and of itself, is bad enough. Taking advantage of public misinformation and reinforcing it is the definition of demagoguery. And demagoguery should have no place in a decent, civil politics.  

Mellman is president of The Mellman Group and has helped elect 30 U.S. senators, 12 governors and dozens of House members. Mellman served as pollster to Senate Democratic leaders for over 20 years and as president of the American Association of Political Consultants.

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