The People’s Pledge – A Refreshing Act of Candidate Responsibility

Massachusetts Senate Candidates Scott Brown and Elizabeth WarrenPerhaps the most high-profile congressional race of the 2012 cycle pits incumbent Republican Senator Scott Brown against Democratic challenger Elizabeth Warren.  The race is extremely close – recent polling is within the margin of error[1] — and extremely important — control of the Senate could come down to the outcome of this election.[2]  Seven months before Election Day, pundits are already speculating that Senator Brown and Ms. Warren could wage the most expensive Senate election in the nation’s history.[3]

In late January, the two candidates did something rather remarkable — they negotiated and signed a cease-fire agreement to keep Super PAC money out of the campaign.  Entitled “The People’s Pledge”, the agreement provides that if a third-party organization airs an independent expenditure broadcast in support of a candidate, the benefitting candidate must pay 50% of the cost of the ad to a charity of the other candidate’s choice.  By essentially punishing a candidate for Super PAC ads run for their benefit, this first-of-its kind pact seeks to greatly reduce the impact of the Supreme Court’s 2010 Citizens United decision, which permits virtually unlimited spending by corporations and unions on elections. [4]

I am not going to opine here on the merits of the Citizens United decision itself, because (a) I haven’t studied the legal precedent or specific areas of constitutional law enough to justify any analysis, and perhaps more importantly, (b) if you are looking for zealous views in either direction, you could spend the remainder of the spring reading them elsewhere online.  I’m serious.  I planned to link to some of them, and a quick Google search produced so many that I felt guilty picking just one or two.  Instead, I prefer to focus on this rather miraculous détente reached by the Massachusetts candidates.

This truce is a refreshing breeze across the political landscape.  There would have been no shortage of Super PAC money flowing into this race; Democrats have had their sights set on reclaiming the former seat of party icon Ted Kennedy in this deep-blue state ever since Senator Brown’s surprising victory in a 2010 special election.  Likewise, Republicans have targeted Ms. Warren ever since they blocked her appointment to lead the newly created Consumer Financial Protection Bureau that conservatives strongly oppose.  Without The People’s Pledge, millions of dollars in Super PAC ads — the vast majority of which are usually negative, ad hominem attacks[5] — would have flooded into the state devoted to “Goldwatering”[6] both candidates.  This pledge was not made in some city commission race in Great Falls, Montana, with nothing at stake.  It was made between well-funded, powerful candidates from a powerful state.[7]

Some have expressed skepticism regarding the effectiveness and motivations for the pact, given the vast resources that Senator Brown and Ms. Warren’s agreement would purportedly limit.  And indeed, it’s easy to be cynical.  Immediately after its announcement, both campaigns were quick to spin the process and take credit for initiating it.[8] And given that both candidates have raised an enormous amount of money in their own rights — Ms. Warren raised $8.8 million through the end of 2011, while Senator Brown had $12.6 million on hand – neither candidate is going to struggle to pay the electricity bill because of their pledge.  Each side will have more than enough cash to get their message out.  Given that political campaigns are about winning, not idealistic practices, some have expressed the idea that both sides may have simply calculated that keeping third-party money out will ultimately be beneficial to their chances of winning.

While I understand the pull towards skepticism, I see it differently.    Plenty of candidates in the 2010 midterms were well-funded yet chose to embrace Super PAC money and the attack ads that they funded.  Trends have to start somewhere, and if The People’s Pledge is received well by the public, then candidates in other states will be encouraged to take similar measures.  The agreement between Scott Brown and Elizabeth Warren increases the percentage of political communication for which the campaigns themselves are directly responsible.  In my view, this is an incredibly encouraging development because it allows the voters to hold the candidates accountable for their undistorted decisions and views.  If this sort of bipartisan pact succeeds and is duplicated around the country, then democracy succeeds along with it.

[2] The races in Nevada, Virginia, Missouri, and Massachusetts will all be critical to determining control.

[4] According to the opinion, candidates may not coordinate with these groups and the funds must be spent independent of the specific campaigns.

[7] So far, Senator Brown has already contributed approximate $36,500 on two separate occasions to the Autism Consortium as a result of conservative groups running ads on his behalf.

About Aaron Brooks, Contributing Editor

Aaron Brooks is a Contributing Editor at Media Rostra. He received a degree in Political Science from the University of Central Arkansas and a law degree from Harvard Law School. He has published multiple academic articles and co-authored a textbook on sports law, although his unsolicited contributions to US Weekly sadly remain unanswered. Aaron is currently a corporate attorney at a Chicago law firm and will soon be marrying his significantly more talented fiance, Mallory.