With his win-at-all-costs approach to campaigning in 1988, Lee Atwater is considered the father of modern mudslinging. He was George H.W. Bush’s henchman, but his style was soon adopted by others in both major parties. Two years later, Atwater would discover his conscience after being diagnosed with brain cancer. Before his passing, he lamented his role in afflicting American politics with a “tumor on its soul.”
Unfortunately, his dying words have been unheeded and this campaign cancer has spread. In each election since, the bar for honesty and integrity has been lowered. This year is no exception, except the perpetrators and financiers have a better chance of remaining in the shadows, thanks to the increasing ingenuity of those who violate the spirit of campaign disclosure laws.
If you have a television, you’ve seen the ads. Most of them are negative and have little respect for the truth. Yet, in this constant stream of nonsense, one local ad is too egregious to overlook. A group called Spokane Families for Change is running an ad that unfairly smears state Sen. Chris Marr and drags some families back into an unwanted spotlight. The ad says: “Marr was sued for sexual harassment and paid $75,000.”
We went over this four years ago in the race between Marr and then-state Sen. Brad Benson in the 6th District. There is no new information. It’s just another smear connected to an old lawsuit, except it ups the ante by suggesting that Marr was the centerpiece of the complaint. He was not. It was an employee at the car dealership of which he was once part owner. But despite the fact that Marr and the victim agree on the facts, Spokane Families for Change issued a press release saying, in essence, they should not be believed.
Which Spokane families? Well, only four people with Spokane addresses contributed to this phony grass-roots effort. We highly doubt any of them knew they were helping finance a malicious smear. Marr’s opponent, Michael Baumgartner, says he can’t comment on the ad because his campaign wasn’t behind it. Sure he can. But that’s the point of these independent campaign groups. They give candidates plausible deniability, a phrase made famous during the corrupt Nixon administration.
It was after Richard Nixon was forced to resign that well-meaning Congresses attempted to rein in campaign abuses with spending limits and disclosure laws. But the courts have ruled that some of the contribution limits are First Amendment violations, and the recent U.S. Supreme Court decision in the Citizens United case has opened the spigot wider. Latter-day Atwaters have seized the initiative and formed new types of campaign vehicles that don’t require donors to reveal themselves.
Congress needs to work on new legislation to bring about transparency in elections. It had the right idea with the DISCLOSE Act, but it appeared to favor unions over corporations. A cleaner, clearer bill would result in Americans knowing who is behind the messages. Without that, there can be no accountability.
In the meantime, campaign contributors ought to be wary of what is being done with their money, and voters ought to ignore the ads and seek out reputable sources. The best defense is transparency and an informed citizenry.
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