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AFP ad example of what’s wrong in politics

The television commercial is designed to spark outrage. “Billions of taxpayer dollars spent on green energy went to jobs in foreign countries,” it intones. “The Obama administration admitted the truth – that $2.3 billion of tax credits went overseas, while millions of Americans can’t find a job.… American taxpayers are paying to send their own jobs to foreign countries.”

But the widely broadcast anti-Obama ad, paid for by Americans for Prosperity, is highly misleading – a slick pastiche of untruths, half-truths and exaggerations. And it’s a prime example of what’s gone wrong with political advertising.

Did $2.3 billion of tax credits go overseas? No. The $2.3 billion figure is the total size of the Energy Department’s tax-credit program. About half of that money went to foreign companies or their U.S. subsidiaries, but all of it was allocated for projects to create American jobs.

Here’s another claim from the commercial: “$1.2 billion to a solar company that’s building a plant in Mexico.” The words are technically accurate but, again, misleading. That $1.2 billion – and it was in loan guarantees, not grants – went to a company called SunPower to help build a solar facility in California. The same company also built a plant in Mexico, but that was an entirely separate project, not financed by the U.S. taxpayer.

It’s true that some federal money went overseas to buy parts for wind turbines and high-efficiency bulbs for traffic lights (when U.S. manufacturers couldn’t meet the demand fast enough, the government says). But that’s not what the commercial says.

There are plenty of legitimate criticisms that can be aimed at the Obama administration’s green-energy programs. But doesn’t it tell you something that Republicans in Congress looked at the charges that taxpayer dollars were going overseas and never even held a hearing? They knew the flimsy accusation couldn’t withstand scrutiny.

That constraint doesn’t apply to Americans for Prosperity, though. The group doesn’t have to answer to voters or run for re-election; its constituents are the unnamed donors that paid for the ad.

AFP staff vigorously defended every allegation in its advertising.

If money goes to a foreign company, AFP said, some of it probably ends up overseas, in the form of profits or management costs. “We feel very comfortable with our message,” said Tim Phillips, AFP’s president.

And he said identifying his donors by name would “definitely have a chilling effect” on their freedom of speech, because they’d instantly become targets of anger from the left.

AFP isn’t the biggest of these organizations. Crossroads GPS, advised by former George W. Bush strategist Karl Rove, says it hopes to spend $300 million, along with its “super PAC” cousin, American Crossroads, which can endorse a specific candidate.

Democrats are scrambling to build super PACs and other independent committees, too, but their efforts have been dwarfed by conservative successes.

This isn’t about partisanship, though. Obama’s campaign advertising also has stepped over the line. His campaign recently ran a commercial accusing Mitt Romney of sending U.S. jobs overseas when he was an executive at Bain Capital, but two of the ad’s three examples occurred after Romney left the firm.

The difference is that when a candidate’s campaign makes a spurious charge, voters can call him on it. When an independent committee makes a spurious charge, who you gonna call?