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.