HERE’S WHAT we know about the US Senate race so far: Scott Brown did not have secret meetings with royalty. Elizabeth Warren may or may not be a Cherokee. The economy is mostly terrible, which might be someone’s fault. And both candidates are truly and deeply interested in debating, although not necessarily with each other, or at the same time.
There’s something missing, and I know what it is. What this race really needs is some super PAC ads.
But wait! Aren’t those ads the scourge of the nation, the problem with our broken political system? Aren’t they the reason people hate politics? Isn’t this why Brown and Warren signed that high-minded pact in January, promising to keep third parties out of the race or give up money to charity, ensuring that we’d elevate the rhetoric and focus our attention on the issues?
Remind me again how that has worked out so far.
And consider this: Advocacy groups, large and small, are at this very moment standing on the sidelines, checkbooks at the ready, aching to weigh in. (“They’re definitely foaming at the mouth,” says Rob Gray, a Republican political consultant.) Some of these PACs represent causes that you disagree with. Some represent causes you agree with. Whatever you happen to think of Citizens United, if the system allows them to have a voice, they might as well use it.
Would it get ugly? Sure. The ads would overreach. They’d be obnoxious, contentious, sometimes grossly misstaken, and yes, a fair share of them would be about Cherokees. But I’m guessing that some ads would also be about issues, and that in the subsequent fact-checking and truth-squadding and hand-wringing, the voters might actually find some illumination. Most importantly, we’d shake the race out of this boring, controlled push-and-pull that isn’t nearly living up to its promise.
I know what you’re saying: Drawing out the issues is the media’s job. Well, I’ll let you in on a secret: The media have a history of covering issues, too — articles outlining the candidates’ positions, helpful charts, comparison websites, nifty infographics. I’ve written a fair amount of these myself over the years. Perhaps you don’t remember them because you fell asleep somewhere in the middle.
In fact, at this very moment, the candidates are spending a portion of their time giving lip service to policy, making semi-substantive declarations at small, friendly gatherings, issuing statements about congressional acts. In addition to those TV ads about kissing his wife, the Brown campaign has aired radio ads about fishing regulation (he thinks there’s too much of it) and women in combat (he’s for it).
But in a race like this, when the partisans have chosen their sides and the undecided margins are small, what gets the most attention is naturally going to be conflict, intrigue, metaphors that spark a larger conversation. Is it any surprise that the campaigns are playing it safe and going for character attacks over fuzzy policy discussions? Until we get some actual TV debates this fall, we need something, someone, to force the campaigns off-message, start some new storylines. If that someone happens to be Sheldon Adelson, so be it.
Here’s a dirty secret: He probably will. It’s hard to find anyone in the political world who believes the super PAC pact will last. (If it stands, one political consultant told me, we should give Brown and Warren “Profile in Courage” awards.) Advocacy groups are already buying Boston-market airtime for the presidential campaign. They could easily pivot and throw in ads related to the Senate race.
And when this great era of principle finally ends, will the public care? History says no.
Gray points to the US Senate race in 1996, when Bill Weld and John Kerry made their own high-minded, much-touted historic agreement on a spending caps — $6.9 million apiece, a laughably small number now.
It went well for awhile, until it didn’t. Kerry was the first to break the cap, justifying the move with some mathematical jujitsu about differing commission rates. Weld wailed that Kerry had broken his word, complained that he didn’t have the right to use his Louisburg Square house as collateral for a campaign loan. Voters saw the fight for what it was — two rich guys, arguing about vast sums of money and a principle that had little meaning.
And Kerry, that unprincipled pact-breaker? He won.