For Brown—Warren pact to work, independent ads can’t be a dodge

A SENATE race this year between Elizabeth Warren and Scott Brown will likely shatter records for campaign spending in Massachusetts and flood the airwaves with ads. What’s important is for both candidates to take responsibility for what’s in those ads - and for the overall tenor of the race.

The agreement between the Brown and Warren camps announced on Monday to discourage third-party groups is a step in the right direction. Under the pact, both candidates will ask their supporters to stop running independent ads, and pay a penalty out of their own campaign coffers if their allies don’t comply.

Voluntary pacts between dueling candidates rarely work. An agreement between John Kerry and William Weld to limit campaign spending in the 1996 Senate race turned out to be full of loopholes, and limits on the activities of outside super PACs will be even harder for Brown and Warren to enforce. The theory this time is that by agreeing to stiff financial penalties, the campaigns are sending a message to outside groups that running ads will actually hurt the candidate they are intended to help.


If the pact works as intended, the agreement could help stanch the flow of super PAC money into Massachusetts. But the two candidates need to go a step further - by explicitly refusing to use the ostensibly independent status of super PACs as a dodge. After all, it’s not just the unregulated nature of super PAC money that is bothering voters; it’s also the way these nominally separate entities are being used to broadcast nasty messages while preserving a level of deniability for the candidates they help.

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That tendency is on full display now in the Republican presidential race, as groups affiliated with Mitt Romney and Newt Gingrich besiege the airwaves with ads attacking the two men, while the two candidates piously disavow any role in the ads. Only a thin tissue of fine print hides the fact that super PACs are clearly acting as arms of the campaign.

In Massachusetts, Warren and Brown must not avoid responsibility for the content of ads that tear each other down. After all, super PACs may stay on the air, simply ignoring Monday’s agreement. The two candidates need to make clear that if they do, any ad attacking Brown will now be Warren’s to answer for, and vice versa.