Missing the point on the People’s Pledge

Jeff Jacoby writes in the Globe today that the People’s Pledge – the agreement between then-Senate candidates Elizabeth Warren and Scott Brown designed to keep third-party advertising out of the race – was a big failure because it “didn’t keep the Senate race from getting nasty” and “didn’t keep the candidates from spending record-smashing sums of money.”

But of course, Jacoby is exactly wrong.  The point of the Pledge wasn’t to guarantee that everyone would abide by the Marquess of Queensberry rules, or that the race wouldn’t be expensive.  The point, rather, was to force the candidates to own their garbage – and that is exactly what happened.  Scott Brown chose (inexplicably) to base his campaign on the notion that Elizabeth Warren was an untrustworthy liar, rather than on any positive view of what he might actually want to do in the Senate.  But because of the pledge, Brown had to make that case himself rather than having Karl Rove do it for him.  He tried his darnedest to make his case stick, but his ads kept getting debunked, and he kept being goaded into saying stupider and stupider things, until finally the people of Massachusetts realized that Brown wasn’t quite as likable as maybe they thought he was.

So I submit that, contra Jacoby, the Pledge worked beautifully in two ways (almost a year ago, Jacoby opined that “there is not the slightest chance the deal will actually keep independent ads off the airwaves or the Internet between now and November’s election,” but of course he was wrong about that too).  It spared us the onslaught of third-party TV ads that voters in other states had to suffer through, and it forced the candidates to decide exactly what case they wanted to make to the voters, both positive and negative, because nobody else was going to make it for them.  As a result, we learned a lot about both candidates, and, IMHO, we made the right decision.

Of course, Jacoby is right that “[s]ince the candidates hadn’t included direct mail, printed flyers, and door-to-door drives in their pledge, political groups right and left were using those options to besiege voters with negative messages and incendiary images.”  I’d add robocalls to that list.  But that surely is not an argument against the idea of the Pledge; it is, rather, an argument for expanding it to include those obnoxious items as well.  If a bit of water seeps through a leak in a dike, the solution isn’t to blow up the dike; the solution is to fix the leak.

Jacoby’s final point is this:

The “People’s Pledge” was never legally binding on the people and groups it was intended to stifle. But in spirit it was arrogant and antidemocratic, an affront to the marketplace of ideas.

Rubbish.  Jacoby gives away the store by his first sentence, in which he concedes that the Pledge did not have (and could not possibly have had) any legal force vis-a-vis the third parties at which it was aimed.  If Karl Rove, or the League of Conservation Voters, wanted to drop a few million bucks into TV attack ads against Warren or Brown, they always remained entirely free to do so.  They just had to do it with the knowledge that their action would carry negative consequences for the candidate they were trying to help.

Frankly, I doubt that the reason Rove et al. stayed out of the race was the financial penalties to which Brown and Warren agreed – after all, even in paying the penalty, a candidate would have essentially gotten a 50% discount on advertising against the other candidate (since, under the Pledge, the penalty was 50% of the value of the ad buy), which is a pretty good deal.  Rather, I think the groups stayed out because in this race, unlike any other in the country, both candidates sent a genuine and unmistakable message that they really did not want those groups to advertise in the race, preferring instead to make their case on their own.

Candidates routinely say that they’d rather third-party groups stay away, but usually they don’t mean it.  In this case, they meant it, and the groups respected their wishes.  And, importantly, the groups didn’t have to respect the candidates’ wishes; they chose to respect their wishes.  Nothing “antidemocratic” about that.

Recommended by hesterprynne, creightt.


15 Comments . Leave a comment below.
  1. "Missing the point"

    intentionally, I should say.

    Note the conflation with “speech” with “freedom to run smear campaigns without taking personal responsibility for them.” As if insisting that people own their words were a form of censorship!

    I felt as though Jacoby was writing a memo directly to the Brown campaign and the right-wing apparatus generally and not to Globe readers at all.

  2. This post nailed it

    I was thinking about writing something similar, but I guess I don’t have to now.

  3. Seriously?

    Once again, Mr. Jacoby has demonstrated that he is part of the liberal Globe’s conspiracy to discredit the right wing. No one could take such hollow ruminations seriously.

  4. It was a pretty weak argument

    maybe not so much weak as pathetic.

    David hit the most important point:

    The point, rather, was to force the candidates to own their garbage

    I’ll add not just Brown putting his name and smug face on his attack ads. But compare the negative ads Warren ran under her own name to the 3rd party attack ads run against Brown in 2010. If you as a candidate can’t own what you’re going to say, then it shouldn’t be said by you or your surrogates. Warren also got pretty negative. But it was never personal. Her negativity was on Scott’s stances on issues, and I think most voters saw that as much more fair game than months of Cherokee ads.

    Brown should be careful what he wishes for, in trying to drum up support to kill the pledge this time around. Markey certainly can’t run versions of the Cherokee ads reminding voters what an a’hole Brown was in that race. But some 3rd party group should could spend a lot of energy showing the ads that Brown himself put his imprint on. You sure you want to do that?

  5. Jeff Jacoby misses a lot of points

    and one can only assume it’s quite purposefully.

    I did, however, come up with an interesting thought when I read this quote:

    there is not the slightest chance the deal will actually keep independent ads off the airwaves or the Internet between now and November’s election

    Wouldn’t it be rather lovely if the Boston Globe was required to keep a checklist of bold-faced pronouncements by its columnists, and at the end of the year tally them all up? Is it worth column inches to have someone so continually and brutally wrong so often? Presumably, there are columnists out there who actually get a lot of this stuff right.

    It’s high time for the Globe to look for its own Nate Silver — or other kind of wonk.

    RyansTake   @   Wed 9 Jan 10:21 PM
    • The only problem is that

      while the Herald is free to have only raving right-wingers, the “liberal” Globe must keep a rightie hack or two around to show “balance.” Since such people are rarely right about anything, the Globe is forced to print big errors or lies a couple of times a week. Forced, I tell you!

      • old thinking

        Conservative wing nuts will think the Globe is a liberal rag no matter what. The rest of us just want good news and thoughtful analysis. That the Globe hasn’t delivered nearly as much of either is why they’ve struggled.

        Furthermore, some of the wonkier ‘new media’ types that have been hired at at other large papers around the country — the Nate Silver and Ezra Kleins of the world, for example — pretty much bypass all of that old ‘liberal rag’ discussion anyway, by sticking with factual analysis. Those are the kind of people the Globe should be taking a strong look at for any new hires in the commentary dept.

        (For news, I’d rather them hire straight reporters with loads of on-the-beat, nitty-gritty experience and no Harvard degrees. It would do wonders for that paper.)

        RyansTake   @   Fri 11 Jan 11:14 PM
  6. Point of clarification: "discount"

    Campaigns typically can buy TV time for a lot cheaper than independent groups, so giving up 50 cents for each dollar spent of your behalf isn’t actally a 50% discount. IF third-party ads cost twice as much to put on TV as your own it’s a wash, and if they cost more you come out behind.

    On to the mail point, Jeff Jacoby is an intellectually dishonest ass who should have been fired a decade ago.

    • It's true that

      campaigns get the lowest available rate, so it might not be a perfect 50% discount. But do you think the difference between the rates is that great? I have no idea – I’m asking.

      • Lowest Unit Rate

        Yes, David, the campaign’s “lowest unit rate” is often half or even less the cost that independent groups pay for ads. Particuarly if they are not bought early and/or are run in October. See e.g.:

        Which says:

        For example, American Crossroads had to pay nearly double what Obama’s campaign was charged — $1,400 compared with $765 — to run an ad during Tampa’s morning news program on Fox affiliate WTVT, a review of station records showed…

        The pro-Romney super PAC Restore Our Future did not make its bookings in the summer and is placing ad buys just days before the spots air, jacking up prices even more. In Norfolk, Va., last week, ROF paid $10,455 to air an ad on CBS station WTKR during the Tuesday prime-time, crime drama “NCIS” — more than double the $4,705 the Obama campaign was charged for the same show

        SO, cat-servant’s points are dead-on. The People’s Pledge worked because of that disparity as well.

  7. Jacoby's arguments mirror those of Scot Lehigh .

    Back when the voters passed the Clean Election act, ie public funding, Lehigh wrote that the act was a failure. Someone (I think it was Warren Tolman) had used his public funding to run a negative ad. The horror!
    I’m grateful that Jacoby believes in some kind of recycling, even if what he is recycling is Scot Lehigh’s casuistry.

  8. Couldn't agree more

    I also wrote a piece arguing against Jacoby, click here.

    A shortened version of this post was printed as a letter in the Globe on Sunday, click here.

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