Free for All

By Kellyn Brown

Political advertisements don’t have to be true. That’s what I gather from a ruling issued last month by U.S. District Court Judge Charles Lovell. And corporations can spend as much as they want on third-party efforts as long as they aren’t coordinating with political candidates, but no one is interested in determining whether that is happening.

Lovell’s decision struck down more of Montana’s election laws, but they didn’t only involve money. Two of them had attempted to regulate what could be said in advertisements. One required that attack ads disclose a candidate’s voting record and the other basically required them to be truthful. The judge deemed those rules unconstitutionally vague.

If third parties thought it was easy to basically make stuff up about candidates, they’re in luck – it’s even easier now. Falling short of accusing political opponents of heinous crimes against humanity that are easily disproved, you can essentially say anything.
In this recently completed dog-eat-dog legislative primary, incumbent Republicans were accused of allowing the state’s educators to teach “sexual detail to kindergartners without parental consent.” The mailer included a picture of what I assume is a kindergartner who is absolutely shocked by these graphic details.

The literature was based on votes these candidates had made in the previous Legislature against House Bill 456, which would have established new requirements for teaching sexual education in public schools. The legislation stemmed from a controversy in Helena over public school curriculum. Those who opposed it argued that a statewide mandate would take away local control from schools.

In that case, there was at least a bill to provide a foundation for a broad accusation. But when Republicans are claiming other Republicans supported “government-run healthcare” (code for Obamacare, which was zero support in the GOP that I know of) in the primaries, just imagine the wild accusations about to beset the general election.

Before the recent ruling, Montana’s “clean campaign” laws never really kept any of the campaigns clean. The state’s office of political practices has long been understaffed and ineffective in refereeing our local elections. And the small fines issued to offenders rarely deter third parties from pushing the limits. But at least the state asked that criticism, even in politics, should be based loosely on facts.

There are still regulations that apply to Montana’s elections. While Lovell’s decision allows corporations to give freely to third parties it still prevents them from coordinating with a candidate. But as we have seen on the national level, coordination appears to be happening anyway.

Both President Barack Obama’s and Mitt Romney’s campaigns and the political action committees supporting them have raised questions with the timing of their recent attack ads. As Politico reported, Romney and the American Crossroads PAC released videos on the same day criticizing the president for wasting billions of dollars in stimulus money on the now-defunct solar company Solyndra. For the president’s part, his campaign released an advertisement railing against Romney’s leadership at the private equity firm Bain Capital and within hours of the PAC Priorities USA Action did the same thing.

It’s difficult to prove whether this is coincidence or corruption and no one seems that eager to find out.

“The great similarity between these two ads perfectly illustrates how super PACs are acting as shadow campaign committees but using unlimited funds that would be illegal for a candidate to receive directly,” Paul S. Ryan, senior counsel at the nonpartisan Campaign Legal Center, told Politico.

If these campaign finance laws are going to be weakened to this extent, they might as well be eliminated altogether. Allow PACs and corporations to openly coordinate with candidates, and then those candidates will at least be held partially responsible for the advertisements meant to help them.

That’s a better alternative than what we have now, where third parties run ads, no one knows who pays for them, and politicians whom they support shrug their shoulders.

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