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.