More on the People’s Pledge: getting to the heart of the issue

After I posted my rebuttal to Globe columnist Joanna Weiss’s column about the People’s Pledge, a Twitter debate ensued which, as usual, raised more questions than it answered.  Because it’s difficult to engage in thoughtful debate in 140-character chunks, I’m returning to long-form discussion, using two of Weiss’s tweets from last night as the jumping-off point.  I asked her whether, at the end of the day, she agrees that the People’s Pledge “works.”  Here’s her two-tweet response:

Depends what u mean by works. Does it elevate debate? No. Keep $ out of politics? Not always (see: Steyer). Does it discourage 3rd party involvement? Yes, & I don’t think that’s a good thing.

OK, let’s take that apart, because I think Weiss is once again on the wrong track in ways that help illustrate some misconceptions about what a People’s Pledge does, and what it doesn’t do.

Does it elevate debate? No.

Weiss presumably means that the Brown/Warren race got nasty, which proves that the Pledge doesn’t “elevate debate.”  But this response begs the question: “compared to what?”  This is a counterfactual: we of course don’t know for sure what the Brown/Warren race would have looked like had third parties participated freely.  But it would be incredibly ostrich-like to pretend that, but for the Pledge, we wouldn’t have been absolutely overrun with vicious SuperPAC ads, probably from both sides.  I know people who lived in Ohio during 2012, which was another high-profile Senate race.  They told me the carpet-bombing of the airwaves was like nothing they had ever seen before.  I have no doubt that Brown/Warren – the highest-profile Senate race in the country – would have been as bad or worse.  So, was the general tenor of the debate 100% high-minded?  No, maybe not, but this is politics after all.  Was it better than it would have been absent the Pledge?  In my view, almost certainly.

Keep $ out of politics? Not always (see: Steyer).

This, as I said before, is a silly rejoinder.  To imply that the fact that a guy flew an airplane banner somehow proves that the Pledge doesn’t dramatically reduce third-party spending on an election is the very definition of a non sequitur.  Again: the point of the Pledge is not to eliminate third-party money from the process.  It’s to reduce it by focusing on especially noxious outlets for that money – specifically, TV and radio ads.  It worked.  Will wealthy interests always find ways to spend at least a few bucks on elections that they want to influence?  Yes.  And that’s fine.  If we can keep tens of millions of dollars worth of hideous TV ads out of our elections, I think we ought to say “job well done,” rather than “too bad about those last few bucks.”

Does it discourage 3rd party involvement? Yes, & I don’t think that’s a good thing.

This is the heart of the matter.  The pro-Citizens United view, which is a defensible position (people as diverse as Glenn Greenwald and the five conservative Supreme Court Justices agree with it), is that more political speech, of whatever form and from whatever source, is by definition better, or at least is protected by the First Amendment so can’t be regulated.  We then assume that the voters will be able to make sense of the deluge.  I asked Weiss whether she is pro-Citizens United, and she responded that “the antidote to Citizens United is strict, strong disclosure rules.”  The disclosure argument is that, in theory at least, if you know where the speech is coming from, you can better evaluate it.

There are, however, several big problems with this position.  First, although (as I’ve already said) Massachusetts is to be commended for trying to implement strict disclosure rules for SuperPACs, federal elections are where the real action is, and the likelihood of a similarly strict disclosure law getting through the US Congress is approximately zero.  So the alternatives are to wait for Congress to do something it’s not going to do, or to try alternative measures (like the Pledge) in the interim.  I prefer the latter option; Weiss, apparently, prefers the former.

Second, even if you know where a particularly nasty TV ad comes from, that doesn’t really help very much in figuring out whether the claim it makes about its target is accurate.  And this is the biggest problem with these ads: they are often technically accurate but overall highly misleading.  The self-appointed fact-checkers like PolitiFact try, but they cannot possibly achieve the market penetration that a big ad buy achieves, plus, they themselves often screw up.  So when third parties have free reign over the airwaves, the likely result is a barrage of misleading “information” – “truthiness,” to borrow Stephen Colbert’s brilliant neologism – that most voters simply do not have the resources to sort out.  Disclosure rules don’t do much about that problem.

Third, of course, the position that there should be no regulation (beyond disclosure) of political advertising regardless of its source or content is of course highly controversial.  A lot of people think Citizens United was wrongly decided – I asked Weiss whether she is one of them, but she has not yet responded.  But here is the real beauty of a People’s Pledge: it does not regulate speech.  So if you are someone who is concerned about the distorting effect that wealthy special interests can have on an election by blanketing the airwaves with misleading advertising, but are uncomfortable with the idea of the government stepping in to do something about it, you should be the biggest People’s Pledge booster.  A Pledge – an agreement between two private parties – obviously does not prevent the Koch brothers or anyone else from running all the advertising they want.  It just lets them know that, if they do so, it will cost the candidate they are ostensibly trying to help some money.

Put another way, we are all familiar with the usual dance that candidates perform when third-party advertising enters their race.  They make public statements tut-tutting the advertising while simultaneously emphasizing that they had nothing to do with it, and then they say that they’d really much prefer it if those third parties would go away.  But they never actually do anything about it.  The Pledge does something about it.  So it’s essentially a strong version of the usual candidate dance: it says to third parties, in effect, I want you to stay out of our race, and I mean it.

Personally, I think that’s a good thing, in large part because I am convinced of the virtues of the “own your garbage” theory of the Pledge that says if you want negative advertising against your opponent, that’s fine, but you have to do it yourself.  Others may (and do) disagree.  But I do wish we could debate the merits of a People’s Pledge without always having to knock down the strawmen first.


7 Comments . Leave a comment below.
  1. People's Pledges reduce the impact of third party money on elections

    If you are a democrat who believes in the principle that all people are created equal and every adult who lives in a community should have an equal say in how it is governed the direction the pledge pushes politics appeals. If you are an elitist who thinks people with more money should be allowed to use their resources to their advantage — like, for example, the framers of the US constitution — the pledge is counter-productive. It still amazes me that Scott Brown agreed to it. Perhaps he didn’t understand what he was agreeing to.

    • He didn't.

      I think what happened is that he, like every politician, launched into the usual dance regarding third parties as described in my post. He was then stunned when Elizabeth Warren called him out on it and proposed giving the dance some teeth. But having been called out, he couldn’t back away without taking a political hit, so he followed through and signed. That’s to his credit; in retrospect, of course, if he had refused to sign, the third-party spending on the race probably would have helped him more than the political hit would have cost him. I very much doubt he’ll ever sign another one.

  2. Sorry that I am late to the party. But David, I’m behind you 100%, and am frankly disappointed in Joanna’s intuitive approach that disregards the data. And the data is unequivocal: the people’s pledge was a huge success on all of the points you raise. Yeah, I’m with her on the ‘sick and tired of the People’s Pledge squabbling and its misuse as a political tool.’ I get that. I am too. And I doubt that such misuse will end regardless of her column or our debate. That’s too bad. Because in the Brown Warren race, the Pledge worked really, really, well. It could also work really well in other races too.

    I’ll take the questions one at a time.

    Does it elevate debate? Accurate answer: ABSOLUTELY!

    At the conclusion of the Brown Warren race we took a close look at the stats here and in comparable U.S. Senate races across the country. Using analysis compiled by the Wesleyan Media Project and the Center for Media Analysis Group, we found that Massachusetts had half the negative advertising that comparable senate races in Ohio, Wisconsin, and Virginia had. A full 97% of the ads run by outside groups in those states were negative. Yeah, the Brown Warren race wasn’t perfect, but it was a whole lot better than we would have gotten otherwise. Why? The People’s Pledge forces negative ads to be run by the campaigns themselves and they pay a steep price by putting their face on it. Joanna is just plain wrong in claiming that outside ads reflect on the candidate. That’s the whole point. The candidate can disavow the ad AND get the benefit of its impact. There may be a few instances where an ad caused collateral damage to a candidate but these rare exceptions don’t prove the rule.

    Does it keep money out of politics? Accurate answer: YES!

    Hard money raised by political campaigns is limited to $500 per donor per year in Massachusetts and $2,600 per federal election. The limits are in place to ensure that candidates can’t be easily bought and that a broader spectrum of Americans participate in funding campaigns. Outside money has no such limits and is typically financed by billionaires throwing in millions. The top 15 donors in comparable races (VA, WI, OH) contributed an average of $7.6 million each. In the Brown/Warren race, thanks to the people’s pledge, small donors contributed three times more than did big donors. In VA, MI, OH, small donors were dwarfed 6-1.
    Again, the exception does not prove the rule. The Steyer airplane could have been addressed by the language of the pledge. As law professor and former Warren staffer Ganesh Sitaraman writes, there are ways to close these loopholes and bad-acting should be anticipated by the terms of the pledge.

    Does it discourage 3rd party involvement? Answer: Yes.

    David does a great job in making the case which boils down to this: is disclosure enough? Common Cause and I are in the necessary but not sufficient camp. Do we really want to cede our elected officials to millionaires and billionaires and special interests that can throw down millions to fund campaigns? What about ‘we the people’? Disclosure does not prevent candidates all becoming wholly owned subsidiaries with little choice for the voter.

    Money in politics corrupts the process and steers public policy to the richest segment of the population and away from the middle class and poor who cannot play the game. With the supposed line between money given to a candidate and money given to a SuperPAC far from bright there is some, but not much, difference between money given to a SuperPAC and a candidate. Colbert hilariously showed just how porous these lines are as he transitioned from SuperPAC to candidate and back. A new report shows how significant the impact is.

    As David says, the People’s Pledge is a great way to obtain three huge benefits without running afoul of the Supreme Court’s rulings or needing a constitutional amendment. It: 1) drastically reduce big money in politics 2) cuts in half negative advertizing and 3) promotes disclosure. On the last item. Yes, Massachusetts is about to pass (we hope!) a great disclosure bill. But no legislation is perfect, nor will it necessarily obtain disclosure on the timetable we want. The Koch brothers created 10 different pass-through organizations to hide their donation in California. It took the California enforcement agency a long time to sort through their deception. Similar subterfuge will likely happen here in Massachusetts too and although we may ultimately uncover the culprit, it won’t always be in time for voters to make informed decisions. Not so with donations to a candidate’s campaign. At $500 a pop, hiding the identity of a donor just does not happen or have the same impact.

    Long and short. While often annoying, the People’s Pledge is well worth the trouble.

    • Pam, s candidate I'm NOT supporting in

      the First Hampden Hampshire state senate race asked his opponents to sign the People’s Pledge by his biggest competitor. He was targeting Eric Lesser, the candidate I AM supporting, who will receive donations from out of state. The candidate I’m NOT supporting also challenged Eric’s residency. Eric worked in the White House for two years. The candidate I’m NOT supporting also resides in the largest part of our district.

      My question is this, under what conditions, if any, is it okay not to sign the people’s pledge?

      I’m not trying to set you up to support Eric, but his opponent has tried to use the Pledge to cancel out Eric’s potential fundraising advantage to maximize the advantage of his residential base.

  3. It was never about elevating debate.

    It was about making politicians accountable for what was said in the campaign — so they couldn’t go say “aww, shucks, I wish that horribly negative ad about my opponent didn’t happen, but not my fault!”

    Some may have hoped it was “elevate” the debate and keep things positive, but the big thing was always accountability.

  4. @JoannaWeis

    Real 3d parties free to be. PPledge hurts sock puppets, keeps it clean. Problems with that?

    Got it in one, with 49 characters to spare.

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