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JOANNA WEISS

It’s time to let go of the People’s Pledge

Heather Hopp-Bruce/globe staff

The Massachusetts Legislature is on track to pass one of the strongest campaign finance disclosure laws in America, a way to make super PACs more transparent, raise limits for contributions, and more quickly reveal the big donors behind those third-party ads.

Does this mean we can finally stop talking about the People’s Pledge?

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Please, please, yes. It’s time to end what has become Massachusetts politics’ most tiresome ritual, the semiannual Dance of the Pledge, in which candidates demand that their opponents forswear third-party ads, then quibble over the details of said pledges, all while claiming the moral high ground.

This is destined to be Scott Brown’s biggest legacy. He and Elizabeth Warren signed the first-ever People’s Pledge in their 2012 Senate race. At the time, neither campaign knew which stood to lose most from an influx of super PAC money. Neither was going to have much trouble raising money on its own.

And so both candidates signed, promising a new era of high-minded, positive campaigning. Let’s recall how it went. The pledge didn’t cover direct mail, so voters were bombarded. On TV, the “elevated dialogue” included a Brown-funded ad about whether Warren was Native American. Brown lost. He moved north. Now, he’s declining to sign a People’s Pledge in New Hampshire.

And still the pledge lives on in Massachusetts. It is a supposed shorthand for clean elections and good governance — and a surefire way, in an era of campaign fatigue and scant policy differences, to at least get a headline in the next news cycle. The Democratic gubernatorial campaigns are quibbling now over who first proposed a pledge (Steve Grossman), who wants one now (Martha Coakley and Don Berwick), and who now has a super PAC supporting him (Grossman again).

The candidates for attorney general are also arguing over terms. Maura Healey wants a pledge that includes direct mail; Warren Tolman wants one that only covers TV and radio ads. The Tolman camp says direct mail is too hard to track and enforce. The Healey camp asks: How many TV ads are we really going to see in an attorney general’s race?

That’s one major problem with the People’s Pledge: It’s easy to craft one that sounds nice but is riddled with loopholes. That’s a complaint super PAC donors who wanted to support Brown raised about the original pledge: It didn’t include phone banks or get-out-the-vote drives, big staples of union electioneering. In last year’s US Senate primary, Stephen Lynch and Ed Markey signed a People’s Pledge that banned third-party spending on TV ads, radio ads, and direct mail. Then a California billionaire flew airplane banners that attacked Lynch for supporting the Keystone XL pipeline.

Whoops. The People’s Pledge didn’t cover airplanes.

On the other hand, the Lynch folks weren’t devastated; it gave them something to talk about. That’s another argument for third-party ads; they can be conversation-starters, awareness-raisers, a way to bring different perspectives to the table.

The big knock on soft money is that it too often comes from the shadows, various billionaire moguls with hidden goals, and sometimes that’s true (cough, the Koch brothers). That’s why transparency and disclosure are so crucial. But outside ads can also come from advocacy groups, some of whom you might agree with, who want to launch a conversation on an issue you find important.

No, their messages aren’t always substantive and pure. (“Did you know that Candidate X hates children and puppies? Call Candidate X and ask him why he hates children and puppies.”) But we live in an age of trackers, truth-rooters, and fact-checkers galore. By now, most of us have the sense, and the means, to tell hyperbole from truth.

Yes, there’s something to be said for a candidate owning his own attacks instead of hiding behind someone else’s negativity. As former state Democratic chair John Walsh points out, those Native American ads, personally approved by Scott Brown, wound up hurting Brown’s good-guy image.

On the other hand, outside ads reflect on the candidates anyway. An odious ad can backfire, no matter who paid for it. That’s the reason many campaign operatives actually adore the People’s Pledge: It leaves money on the table, but allows campaigns to control the message.

I’m not sure that’s what we want, though. I’d rather have a rollicking, multi-way conversation, where everyone has a voice and everyone knows who’s paying for what. We don’t need a People’s Pledge or a piety arms race. We just need to trust the voters to sort it out.

Joanna Weiss can be reached at weiss@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @JoannaWeiss.
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