The Purpose of the 'People's Pledge'

It wasn’t to keep the race ‘civil.’ It was to keep the candidates accountable.

In this all too short  break between Massachusetts Senate elections, people have taken time to appraise the “People’s Pledge” signed by Elizabeth Warren and Scott Brown, which prevented television and radio advertising funded by outside political groups.

Globe columnist Jeff Jacoby adds his two cents to the post-game debate this morning, declaring it a failure on several counts, at least one of which seems misguided. Jacoby rightly notes that many hoped the pledge would make the Senate race more civil, and in this, they were disappointed:

By September, “civility” had given way to a different byword. Far from proving “the nation’s most civil political race,” CNN reported, the Brown-Warren battle “has morphed into one of the ugliest.” BuzzFeed’s Rosie Gray, in a story headlined “The Ugliest Campaign in America,” concluded that Warren and Brown’s pledge had “accomplished roughly the opposite of its goal,” driving the Bay State race to an “unusual depth of personal nastiness.”

But was “civility” the ultimate goal of the pledge? Campaigns with advertising from outside groups often get the benefit of sitting back while their attack dogs do the dirty work for them. President Obama didn’t have to claim that Mitt Romney basically let some guy’s wife die of cancer, because a pro-Obama Super PAC did it for him. Mitt Romney didn’t have to call Obama “the biggest celebrity in the world” because Karl Rove did it for him. Neither candidate looked particularly crude, but the race sure did.

“Keeping super PAC money out of Massachusetts isn’t just about sparing residents an even greater onslaught of negative political ads — though that is a nice side benefit,” The Globe’s editorial board wrote recently. “It’s about preventing the state’s next senator from coming into office already beholden to special interests that may or may not be known to voters.”

It’s also about helping voters understand who is making a political smear during their commercial breaks. It shouldn’t surprise us that the Massachusetts Senate candidates themselves had to get their hands dirtier without the advantage of TV ads from outside groups. A hope for the pledge was that it would encourage civility. A guarantee of the pledge was that if a candidate wanted to act uncivil, he or she would have to sign a name to the attack. If the Massachusetts race seemed nastier than others, it’s probably because the candidates had to go negative themselves.

Regardless, Jacoby is likely to get his way here. As the Globe’s Noah Bierman reported earlier this month, it will be enormously difficult for a pledge to withstand the special Senate election. With such a short campaign period, both candidates will likely think they need the outside help, and with only one Senate election in the country, donors will be itching to lend a hand. Maybe when all this is done, Massachusetts voters will have a great side-by-side comparison to see which form of incivility they prefer.