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Scott Larson





Building façade in Cannes, France

Let it flow

I want to follow up on something I jokingly touched on last week. Unfortunately, this means that this particular commentary is liable to turn into an outright political rant, something I try to avoid—not always with success, as my more dogged readers have long since noted. After all, this web site is supposed to be about movies, or at least about popular entertainment. Well, maybe I can stretch the definition of “popular entertainment” to cover my topic for the week, which is campaign advertising.

Now, you probably already think you know what I am going to say, right? You think I am going to go on about how sad it is that there is so much awful negative campaign advertising and what a shame it is that the level of discourse in the American election campaign has sunk so low. The candidates should concentrate on the issues and stop the mudslinging, right?

Well, listen up. I enjoy the mudslinging. It’s the only thing that keeps this election halfway interesting. And you know what? You probably like it too, though you won’t admit it. Polls always show that people claim to be “turned off” by negative advertising, but results also show that it works. Which is why we keep getting more of it. I’m willing to bet, anyway, that you don’t mind negative advertising so much when it’s aimed at a candidate that you don’t want to win.

So, here’s my beef about campaign advertising. I thought it was bad when John Kerry demanded that President Bush make the Swift Boat Veterans for Truth withdraw their ads questioning John Kerry’s service in Vietnam. I thought it was worse when Bush asked Kerry to join him in getting all ads from 527 groups off the air. What the heck is going on here?

My friends, we are (to employ an over-used phrase in politics) on a slippery slope. Now, I am not naïve. I know what is going on. Each campaign is doing what it has to. One of the best spears in Kerry’s rhetorical arsenal is to paint Bush and those around him as smear artists. The story is firmly entrenched in Democratic lore about how Bush’s father’s opponent in 1988 (like Kerry, a politician from Massachusetts) was undone by ads featuring an ex-con named Willie Horton, that was seen by some to be racist. Anything that reminds voters on the left and some in the middle of the Willie Horton episode will only energize them, if not specifically in favor of Kerry, then at least against Bush. The president’s response, on the other hand, was a deft way of making the point that most 527 ads actually support Kerry. These two men are basically in a holier-than-thou debate about campaign finance reform, an idea that apparently no politician can afford to be against and by which he or she can only benefit by supporting.

Please allow me to dissent on the idea of campaign finance reform. One of the advantages (or perhaps disadvantages) of getting old is that your memory goes a long way back. For example, I remember years ago people talking about how bad it was that there was so much money in political campaigns and that somebody ought to do something about it. Then Congress passed campaign finance reform, and guess what. All that money didn’t go away. It found a loophole. It went into political action committees (PACs), which proceeded to raise money like bookies and spend it like drunken sailors. This went on for quite a few years, and then there were again cries about how awful it was that there was so much money in political campaigns and that somebody ought to do something about it. Nobody seemed to remember that campaign financing had supposedly already been reformed. (Campaign financing seems to get “reformed” nearly as frequently, and as ephemerally, as the tax system.) During the long debate on the McCain-Feingold bill to reform campaign financing, I kept waiting for someone to stand up and say, hey, you know, we tried this before and look what happened. The bill eventually passed, mainly because, with a few exceptions, no one could be seen to be against it. There was celebration, and many hearty congratulations all around.

In fairness, I think John McCain and Russ Feingold are completely sincere in seeing the way campaigns have been financed as a real problem and wanting to solve it. But the same thing happened again. The money didn’t just go away. It found a way to support and oppose political candidates, this time through the 527 groups. Now these groups can’t legally be connected to campaign organizations, but that’s not a hard requirement to meet. The United States is a huge country with lots of citizens, many of whom have an interest in who is elected to high office. Why wouldn’t there be plenty of them available to form groups to support issues close to their hearts, thereby helping and hurting specific candidates? By suggesting that these groups shouldn’t do what they do or, worse, that they should come under the control of campaign finance reform, as Bush and McCain seem to be suggesting, we are creeping closer to a system where the ability to speak out on issues during a political campaign will be severely restricted.

Now, I know why campaign finance reform seems like a good idea. The fear has always been that, since there is an apparent correlation between the amount of money a political party raises and how well that party does in an election, parties with deeper pockets will have an unfair advantage. Democrats in particular seem to have had this concern since, after all, most rich people tend to support the Republican Party. The irony is that candidates such as Bill Clinton, Al Gore and John Kerry have demonstrated that Democrats can raise competitive amounts of money. Therefore, the sincere goal of fairness of people like McCain and Feingold turns into political maneuvering by politicians to leave in place loopholes that they think their party can best exploit. The 527 loophole is a case in point. Republicans wanted to close that loophole because they saw it helping the Democrats, and they were right. Organizations like MoveOn.org have been a big boost for Kerry. That’s why it was a bit disingenuous of Kerry to make such the kind of fuss he did when such a group popped up on the Republican side. The episode has, indeed cost him dearly in opinion polls (at least temporarily), but this is certainly due more to his way of dealing with the ads than the ads themselves. Free advice to Democrats: study how the Bush people deal with these things. No one is better at playing the innocent victim of an attack than W.

In demanding that Bush make the SwiftVets withdraw the ads, Kerry meant to plant the idea that the group was a creature of the Bush campaign and therefore a manifestation of moral corruption on the part of the Bushies. I think, however, most voters (at least the less conspiratorially-minded of them) recognized that, apart from the merits of their charges, some of these veterans had been around and criticizing Kerry for years. They weren’t mere actors hired by Karl Rove to appear in a few ads. And that gets to the crux of the problem of campaign finance reform in general and extending it to the 527 groups in particular. We might question the veracity and tastefulness of the SwiftVet ads, but do we really want the government to place a muzzle on these citizens to have their say? Do we want to place the same muzzle on MoveOn.org and similar groups? We know from experience that the money will just flow somewhere else. If we become obsessed with making all spending that might influence a political campaign equal, life will become very complicated. What’s the next step? Do we prohibit Michael Moore from releasing movies during an election year? I may not admire everything Moore does, but I would be the first to defend him if the government tried to restrict his or anyone else’s filmmaking activities.

Okay, I know what you’re thinking. You’re saying, okay, Mr. Smarty-pants, so should we just get rid of all campaign finance legislation and simply let rich people flood the media with advertising to elect candidates who serve the interests of rich people? In a word, yes. Except I disagree with the premise of the question. As noted above, the Democrats have more than shown that they are competitive at raising political money. The idea that Republicans automatically have an advantage in this area seems to be a myth. Rich people might trend Republican, but there are lots of middle-class people with money to donate (or in some cases, have it donated for them by their trade union) to political parties. The best way to attempt fairness is to require immediate and full disclosure of all political donations. In the past, this idea was always dismissed because the amount of data that would be produced and the amount of time needed to accumulate and distribute it would make it all a pointless gesture. That’s not true anymore. Technologically speaking, in this day and age, there’s nothing to prevent the nightly news from reporting on a daily basis who is giving how much to whom. Or to allow any citizen or advocacy group to do a search on the internet to get up-to-the-minute info on how the money is flowing. As this becomes part of political reporting, I suspect the financing will modify itself to avoid having candidates embarrassed or politically disadvantaged by getting too much money from certain sources. Anyway, it can’t be much worse than the current system. And, most importantly, no citizen will have to check with a lawyer to make sure that it is okay for him or her to give money to a group or to appear in an advertisement, i.e. to make sure that it is all right with the government to participate in the political process.

End of rant.

-S.L., 9 September 2004


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