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January 23, 2012

A Conversation on Money in Politics

by at 4:42 pm.

While Colbert and Stewart lambaste our Citizen United world with hilarious satire and extreme tactics, the Senate race in Massachusetts is having a quiet discussion all its own, with a pact between Brown and Warren (both sort of take credit, though it does appear Warren is the one to suggest something more binding). The pact, in case you live under a rock, is that any money spent for or against a candidate in the race by outside groups will be matched 50% from the candidate it benefited towards a charity of the other candidate’s choosing (thereby hurting the candidate it was supposed to help).

Even though this whole back-and-forth seemed a little gimmicky, and I felt at first that all we really needed was a strong, unequivocal condemnation from both sides, this pact does have some pretty interesting implications. For one thing, it’s an unprecedented candidate-driven pushback against the CU ruling, an acknowledgement of the damage of unregulated, unknown spending. We expect there to be a legislative pushback (so far, unsuccessful) or maybe eventually a constitutional one, but to be coming from two major candidates, that says something particular - a “we don’t want your help, your money, get out” from the parties involved.

There are concerns about whether or not certain deep pockets could get sneaky, create a SuperPAC that pretends to be for, say, Warren that runs ads against Brown, thereby costing the Warren campaign 50% of that ad buy - but I don’t think this will happen. For one thing, that SPAC has to spend double what it’d cost the candidate to make ads in support of them, and even if you make it kind of heavy-handed hoping it will backfire (look totally Rovian, for instance), you’d still be taking a risk of making a big ad buy that hurts the candidate you truly support.

Even more interesting, is will this stop the outside money? The Globe ran an interesting comparison of this pact to the 1996 Kerry-Weld agreement to not spend more than $5M on TV ads. Kerry broke that pact, claiming Weld already broke it by having an unfair low cost to his ad buys. Whoever did break actually it, it got broken.

Leaving us to wonder, is this really going to work?

[Weld’s communication director] Gray projected outside groups will spend up to $20 million in what is being pegged as a $60 million race - $20 million apiece by Brown and Warren, assuming she wins the Democratic nomination, and another $20 million from groups interested in their candidacies.
[…]
The League of Women Voters and the League of Conservation voters have already aired over $3 million worth of ads attacking Brown’s record, while a conservative group, Crossroads GPS, has aired over $1 million in ads attacking Warren’s.

If we’re already $4M into possibly $20M or more in ad buys for or against candidates from outside groups, can a pact like this stem the tide?

I think it will, at least for a little while. I’m certain the pact will get tested, though, so the question remains, will both sides stick to it to the detriment of their campaign, since the numbers here are not small? I’m less cynical about this, because the backlash from breaking this one is not one either campaign can afford. Warren, because she banks her campaign on her commitment to the middle and working class and to fairness, openness, and transparency - a break from her would undermine that. And Brown, whose poll numbers are not where they should be for an incumbent, can ill afford to look like the schmuck in all this.

I doubt Warren, at least, entered into this lightly. Brown either, for that matter. It’s a test of resolve against the tide of insanity that is the money flow in campaigns these days. In the end, I think I’m just glad someone’s willing to appear to put up or shut up. So, kudos to both sides. Now, let’s have the real, substantive debate from the candidates that Massachusetts deserves. Something that might well be possible when we’re not drowning in ads from outside groups.

There’s a good discussion at BMG, and also, what do YOU think? Gimmick, unenforceable, brave move, or something in between?

7 Responses to “A Conversation on Money in Politics”

  1. Lynne Says:

    Just as an aside - notwithstanding potential “sneaky” fake SPACs, I am guessing that any pro-Warren groups would easily be able to respect this pact, because the sort of groups that support her are, well, respectable. The League of Conservation Voters won’t run any more ads, I am sure of it, if it winds up hurting Warren. I can’t think of a major pro-Dem group that would be stupid enough to run any more ads now.

    However, I am not so sure about the Rove group, or any other Republican group that takes full advantage of the shadowy world of SPACs…

  2. Publius Says:

    A few points;

    1. The pledge is stifling free speech,
    2. The pledge is illegal. There is to be no contact between the campaign and outside groups. Telling them to do something, is considered contact.
    3. Does the ban extend to local groups such as the Massachusetts Teachers Association from airing ads?

  3. Lynne Says:

    “The pledge is stifling free speech”

    So just asking people not to interfere is stifling free speech? Right.

    We the people, by the way, have a vested interest in hearing from the CANDIDATES without all the lies innuendo and attacks from people who are not going to be the ones actually voting. Also, money does not equal speech, even if SCOTUS ruled that way, I don’t believe that.

    “The pledge is illegal.”

    Um, huh? You make no sense here. “No contact” means no contact, how is an open letter (which by the way, *I* can write an open letter) contact? Give me a break.

    And yes, they are asking for all outside groups to knock it the heck off, or it will hurt the campaign which it is trying to help. What part of this is obscure?

    And BTW, as I stated, I am guessing all Dem-leaning groups are not stupid enough to test this.

    The dripping sarcasm you write about the MTA running ads is at odds with your “it’s an invasion of free speech to even mention that we don’t want your speech” routine, BTW.

  4. joe from Lowell Says:

    1. My free speech are in no way stifled if someone else doesn’t spend money to say the same thing. The outside groups have absolutely no free speech right to have the campaigns spend their money on political ads instead of charity.

    2. The campaigns aren’t telling the outside groups what to do. They are announcing their intentions about what they will do with their own money.

    3. Yes, all third-party groups.

  5. C R Krieger Says:

    “Also, money does not equal speech, even if SCOTUS ruled that way, I don’t believe that.”

    Whether or not I “believe” SCOTUS, it is SCOTUS, and thus the law of the land.  At least until we get a Constitutional Amendment.

    I hear a lot of talk about taking personhood away from corporations, but not a lot on what would replace it.  There is the question.

    However, I would argue that the right to free speech should include the right to preview said free speech.  I assert that, at least in Lowell, it is the more leftish blogs that lack a print preview, LinL, Dick Howe, Gerry Nutter…  Note, we are talking “print preview”, not “moderated comments”.

    Regards  —  Cliff

  6. Lynne Says:

    This would be because we are the longer-embedded institutions in this town, and have old software running our blogs. :-P

    YOU try upgrading after several years…

  7. Christopher Says:

    Personally, I would have exempted the NRSC, DSCC, and the two state parties from this pledge. After all, helping get their candidates elected is the whole reason those groups exist. Also, Elizabeth Warren will be on The Daily Show tonight to discuss this. I think Stewart and Colbert have done a great job mocking the supposed lack of coordination between candidates and superpacs.

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