Scott Brown eagerly signed on to the “People’s Pledge” when, as sitting senator, he faced a challenge from Elizabeth Warren. Now, one state away, he’s set to take on New Hampshire’s Jeanne Shaheen, and she’s urging him to once again take the pledge. He’d be smart to refuse, letting pragmatism trump principle. Very few care about the principle anyway.
The pledge is largely a Massachusetts invention. Thanks to a 2010 Supreme Court decision loosening campaign finance restrictions —
Common Cause sang praise for the pledge. In an analysis after the race, it claimed that the level of outside spending was far less than in similar races across the country. But, in truth, it’s not clear the pledge accomplished much good. And Brown very likely ended up regretting the idea.
One supposed benefit of cutting outside spending is that negative ads are reduced. But as the Globe’s Jeff Jacoby has noted, the Brown-Warren matchup was pretty ugly anyway. (Remember the fake-Indian gibes?) Not only that, but there’s no reason to believe outside money has to be negative. Third-party groups could just as easily pump up the credentials of the candidates they support. The reason they don’t, sadly, is not the source of the money. It’s that negative campaigning works.
In addition, the pledge can be pretty ineffectual. In the Brown-Warren race, for example, third parties such as the League of Conservation Voters still ran anti-Brown ads while the super-PAC America 360 urged votes for the incumbent. But they got around the pledge by mailing flyers to homes (the pledge only applied to TV and radio) or claiming these were get-out-the-vote efforts.
The real problems with the pledge run deeper, however. First is the assumption that outsiders should have no say in local races, that only the people of, say, Massachusetts, have a rightful interest in who they pick for US Senate. But such a parochial view of the world is simply wrong. Local races have a national impact. Democrats, for instance, enthusiastically try to defeat Tea Party candidates in distant states they’ve never visited. They can do so by sending money directly to candidates, shipping it to national Democratic groups, or contributing to pro-democratic super-PACs. Republicans use the same mechanisms to thwart candidates they don’t want.
The second problem with the pledge is the belief that it levels the playing field between candidates. Sometimes that might be true, but oftentimes the pledge simply becomes a way for one side to cramp the fundraising of the other. My guess is that Brown miscalculated when he proposed the pledge in 2012. Up in the polls, with a nice cash hoard and running against a relative unknown, he must have figured Warren would never match him financially. She was easily able to do so however, tapping into vast Democratic donor networks that were energized by the prospect of electing a true-blue liberal.
This time, Shaheen’s embrace of the pledge appears to be nothing more than a clever campaign tactic. Democrats nationally are facing a number of tight senatorial races (many, in fact, are predicting a Republican takeover of the body), and there’s fear there won’t be enough money to go around. Get Brown to sign the pledge, and Democrats can spend their money elsewhere while Shaheen faces a less well-funded opponent.
Still, how can Brown, who once trumpeted cleaning up campaigns, now reverse course? Won’t people care? Sure, a few will. They’ll be mostly journalists and good-government types who will wring their hands and mutter dark imprecations. But the imbroglio will blow over. In the scheme of things, campaign finance is no big deal; it doesn’t move votes. Witness, for example, Boston’s recent mayoral race, where John Connolly nobly turned down third-party by an education-reform organization. Marty Walsh, on the other hand, welcomed outside funders and relied on them to eke out a victory. The lesson for Brown: The pledge buys far less favor than does the money foregone.
Tom Keane can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org