With big dollar donors effectively in control of American politics, writing six- and seven-figure checks to super PAC’s to support ad campaigns that confuse viewers and distort the views and records of candidates, it’s no surprise that voters are increasingly cynical about public affairs.
Surveying this sorry state of affairs three years ago, Scott Brown, the Republican then representing Massachusetts in the U.S. Senate, and Elizabeth Warren, the Democrat who aspired to unseat him, agreed on a way to keep their contest focused on each other and their issues rather than on the agendas of the millionaires and super PACs.
They called their deal the People’s Pledge and it worked splendidly. Brown and Warren each agreed to contribute 50 cents to charity from their respective campaign funds for every dollar an outside group spent on ads helping them or attacking the opposition. After they signed the pledge, outside spending in their campaign slowed to a trickle and Brown and Warren waged a campaign marked by civility and respect for the voters.
A post-election study by Common Cause Massachusetts concluded that the pledge dramatically reduced the level of negative advertising in the Brown-Warren race, compared to other contested races across the country. As a bonus, it also spurred the candidates to pay more attention to conventional fundraising through small dollar donations, drawing them closer to their actual constituents.
Despite its success in Massachusetts however, the pledge has had difficulty catching on elsewhere. More than a dozen candidates proposed one form or another of the pledge in 2014, only to be turned down by opponents who weren’t eager to run on a level field. Opinion polls say voters still like it however, and so big money’s defenders are determined to snuff it out entirely.
Enter Luke Wachob, an essayist at the Center for Competitive Politics, a group that argues there’s too little money in politics. In a piece posted earlier this month on the group’s website, he dismisses the pledge as a gimmick that muzzles free speech and harms candidates and voters.
It does nothing of the sort.
The pledge doesn’t muzzle anyone. It simply allows candidates to demonstrate that they’re more interested in the concerns – and the small dollar financial support – of rank-and-file voters than in relying on big money. And at a time when congressional gridlock and ideological divide prevent Congress from enacting common-sense reforms, the pledge provides a voluntary process in which two (or more) candidates can directly negotiate how to keep special interest, secret money out of politics.
It’s true that candidates who adopt the pledge also do so in hopes it will persuade outside groups not to spend money on their campaigns. But whether it works is up to the outside groups, not the candidates. Those groups remain free to spend and some
have done so, both in Massachusetts and in the handful of other places where the pledge has been employed.
The Brown-Warren contest also demonstrates that the pledge is neither a game nor a gimmick.
It’s undoubtedly true that some candidates, knowing its popularity with voters, have proposed taking the pledge in the expectation that their opponents would decline the offer and would suffer with voters as a result. Candidates routinely say and do all sorts of things they hope will diminish the opposition; that’s part of politics.
But exposing disingenuous opponents also is part of politics. Candidates who make unserious offers to take the pledge can easily be outed; as soon as the opponent appears ready to negotiate seriously and sign a pledge, they can be relied on to back away from the offer, exposing the fraud and hurting themselves in voters’ eyes.
As for Wachob’s claim that the pledge hurts voters; we should all suffer such punishment. A campaign run under the pledge makes it easier for candidates to speak clearly and directly to the electorate and for us to hear and evaluate them without the distractions provided by outside groups.
Perhaps most importantly, the pledge also increases the chance that the winning candidate will take office at least as beholden to those who can make only modest contributions, or no contributions at all, as to those who stroke big checks to super PACs. That’s an important step toward a healthier, more responsive democracy.
Office: Common Cause National
Issues: Money in Politics
Tags: People's Pledge