TV Political Ads: Ditching Democracy 30 Seconds at a Time

 

by Walter Brasch

 

        There's good news this week. There's only about two weeks before the midterm elections.

          Now for the bad news. There's still about two more weeks to be garroted by TV ads.

          Back-to-back-to-back, we are choking on lies, distortions, and half-truths. This year may go into history as having the most vicious attack ads since the "dark ages" shortly after the nation was founded. Biggest difference? More than two centuries later, most of the ads scream at you from television rather than partisan newspapers.

          Between $3.5 and $4.5 billion will be spent on campaign ads this season. That's one to two billion more than was spent during the midterm elections four years ago.

          One of the reasons for the increase in spending is that the conservative wing of the Republican party has launched an all-out assault to once again take over Congress. Another reason is that they got a supreme assist in January. The Supreme Court, by a 5–4 vote along party lines, decided in Citizens United v Federal Election Commission [130 S.Ct. 876] that the First Amendment applies to corporations, which now would enjoy the same protections given to citizens and associations of citizens. The decision essentially obliterated the gains made by the Bipartisan Campaign Reform Act of 2002 (known as the McCain–Feingold Act) and a Supreme Court decision (McConnell v. FEC; 540 U.S. 93) a year later that ruled most of the Act constitutional.

          In a strongly-worded dissent in the Citizens United case, Justice John Paul Stevens declared the Supreme Court's decision "threatens to undermine the integrity of elected institutions across the Nation. . . . [It is] a rejection of the common sense of the American people, who have recognized a need to prevent corporations from undermining self government since the founding, and who have fought against the distinctive corrupting potential of corporate electioneering since the days of Theodore Roosevelt." Justice Stevens further argued that, "While American democracy is imperfect, few outside the majority of this Court would have thought its flaws included a dearth of corporate money in politics." President Obama called the decision, "a major victory for Big Oil, Wall Street banks, health insurance companies and the other powerful interests that marshal their power every day in Washington to drown out the voices of everyday Americans."

          Eight of the 10 groups that have bought the most TV advertising this election lean to the Republicans, according to an analysis of by the Wesleyan Media Project.

          And that brings us to the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, second in spending only to the Republican Governors Association. The Chamber of Commerce, along with the National Rifle Association, was one of the most vigorous supporters of the Citizens United legal case to extend First Amendment protections to corporations. At one time, the Chamber was non-partisan. During the past decade, it has become an advocacy group for conservative candidates and ideology. For this election, it has promised to spend about $75 million in campaign ads. Because the Chamber, a non-profit agency, doesn't need to report its contribution and spending to the Federal Elections Commission, the nation is left wondering if it's true, as the President charges, that significant donations are from foreign companies and governments. Those contributions are illegal under U.S. law. The Chamber claims it does receive foreign money but doesn't use it for political advertising—but refuses to disclose specifics. Even if the Chamber doesn't use foreign money for political ads, the revenue it receives from foreign money frees up its budget to increase spending for a right-wing agenda. Four years ago, almost every organization disclosed where their funds came from. This year, according to FEC data, only about one-third of the organizations have done so.

          Republicans have put a "face" on their attack ads, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, who appears in more anti-Democrat campaign ads than any Democrat running for office, is seen as everything evil. Perhaps it's because she is a powerful woman who represents San Francisco, a district that is racially, culturally, and ethnically diverse. Pelosi, and most Democrats in hotly contested races, are portrayed as Pelosi puppets who voted for the stimulus bill and health care reform, both seen erroneously by the ultra-conservative wing as socialist or Marxist programs. Most objective analysts say that the stimulus bill, even with its flaws, kept the nation out of sinking into a Depression, and that health reform, derisively known as Obamacare, has significantly improved the nation's health care while keeping costs down. However, President Obama doesn't appear in too many attack ads. For the Party on the White to emphasize the "evils" of President Obama could result in a backlash.

          In response, the Democrats have charged Republicans as being the "Party of NO," with no social conscience and no political agenda, a party that blocks any reform or progress solely for political reasons. What the Democrats didn't do is more important than what they did do. The Democrats have been unable to effectively use campaign advertising to portray the Republicans as the party in power when the nation entered into an unjustified $1 trillion war in Iraq, created the greatest deficit in American history, refused to stop Wall Street and bank greed, allowed the mortgage crisis to develop and undermine American security, brought about double-digit unemployment, and shoved the nation into one of its greatest recessions.

          But, here's another reality. TV ads, like newspaper editorials, seldom change anyone's preconceived opinions. Liberals continue to support liberals. Conservatives continue to support conservatives. The "independent" middle, sometimes known as a "soft vote" because both parties try to grab it, is largely a myth. The "soft middle" may not be influenced by any campaign ad—and they may not even vote.

 

          So, what is the purpose of TV ads and the significant increase in funding? Simply, it's to hold and reinforce the base. Conservatives have done much better to rally their base than have liberals this year. If the conservatives retake either or both houses of Congress, it will not be because the Obama administration failed. It will be because the conservatives spent significantly more on a full-range media campaign that included a dominant TV presence, rallied their base, controlled the news media, which controlled the agenda, and effectively blocked an ineffective Democratic response that failed to counter lies, distortions, and half-truths.

 

[Walter Brasch's latest book is Sex and the Single Beer Can, a witty and probing look at the media and American culture. It is available from Amazon.com and other stores.]

 

 

 

Weekly Pulse: SCOTUS Nominee Kagan a Cipher on Choice

by Lindsay Beyerstein, Media Consortium blogger

On Monday, President Barack Obama nominated solicitor general Elena Kagan to replace retiring Justice John Paul Stevens on the Supreme Court. Kagan’s nomination has raised eyebrows among progressives. Despite a long career in legal academia, Kagan has published very little. She seems to have studiously avoided taking a stand on almost any controversial issue. Ruth Conniff of the Progressive calls the Kagan pick “a triumph of the bland.”

“Partial Birth Abortion” ban

As a White House aide, Kagan wrote a memo urging President Bill Clinton to support a ban on so-called “partial birth abortion.” At the time, the House had passed a sweeping late-term abortion ban with no exceptions for the life and health of the mother. Clinton asked Kagan whether he should throw his support behind a more moderate Senate version of the same bill. She recommended a “compromise”—a ban with a maternal health exemption. In the end, Congress passed the extreme version and Clinton vetoed it.

Suzy Khimm of Mother Jones characterizes the memo as “more indicative of a political strategy than a legal argument.” In other words, Kagan was giving strategic advice to the president about what would be politically feasible, not legal advice about the government’s powers to regulate abortion. Kagan argued that the president should support the “compromise” position even though the Justice Department thought it was unconstitutional, according to Jodi Jacobson of RH Reality Check.

At TAPPED, Monica Potts argues that the memo gives us little indication of how Kagan would vote on abortion as a justice.

No Harriet Miers

There’s no question that Kagan is possessed of a formidable intellect. Stephanie Mencimer of Mother Jones quotes one of her former law school students, Elie Mystal, sharing his experience with Kagan on the blog Above the Law:

Like Frodo on Weathertop, there are some wounds that never fully heal. Professor Kagan massacred me intellectually, and brutalized my pride. I got some form of a B in her class (I honestly don’t remember if there was a modifier — I’ve tried to suppress those memories). Kagan was a frightening professor for those who wanted to match wits with the brightest legal minds in the world. For people like me, people who just wanted to get through law school with minimal mental damage, Kagan was nothing short of terrifying.

That’s the best news I’ve heard all day.

Kagan has never been a judge, but that’s not necessarily a deal-breaker in itself. As Steve Benen points out at the Washington Monthly, over a third of the 111 justices of the Supreme Court have had no previous judging experience.

A missed opportunity

Scott Lemieux argues in the American Prospect that Obama is wasting a rare political opportunity to confirm a more liberal justice. Right now, the Democrats still have a sizable, though not filibuster-proof, majority in the Senate. Lemieux argues that Obama is almost certain to get another Supreme Court pick before the end of his term. Then again, he points out, the Democrats are likely to lose Senate seats in the midterm elections.

If Obama were ever going to get a strong liberal on the bench, this would have been the time. No date has been set for a confirmation hearing. Kagan is in Washington today, courting lawmakers.

This post features links to the best independent, progressive reporting about health care by members of The Media Consortium. It is free to reprint. Visit the Pulse for a complete list of articles on health care reform, or follow us on Twitter. And for the best progressive reporting on critical economy, environment, health care and immigration issues, check out The Audit, The Mulch, and The Diaspora. This is a project of The Media Consortium, a network of leading independent media outlets.

 

 

New Supreme Court nominee speculation thread

MSNBC's First Read reported today:

Per NBC’s Pete Williams and Savannah Guthrie, administration officials say at least eight names are on President Obama’s list of potential Supreme Court nominees. Six are women and two men. The names: U.S. Solicitor General Elena Kagan, Diane Wood of the 7th Circuit Court of Appeals, Merrick Garland of the DC Court of Appeals, Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano, Michigan Gov. Jennifer Granholm, former George Supreme Court Chief Judge Leah Ward Sears, Sidney Thomas of the 9th Circuit, and Harvard Law School Dean Martha Minow. Of these names, people outside the government but familiar with White House thinking say the serious contenders are Kagan, Wood, Garland, Napolitano, and Granholm. Guthrie adds that Obama is likely to meet next week with key senators to discuss the vacancy. Many of the new additions are about interest group appeasement. And note the growing concern in the liberal/progressive blogosphere about Kagan.

One person who doesn't sound concerned about Kagan is Republican Senator Lindsey Graham of South Carolina:

“I like her,” he said, quickly adding, “and that might hurt her chances.”

Graham, whose support for Justice Sonia Sotomayor last summer was a turning point in her confirmation process, said he liked Kagan’s answers about national security and the president’s broad authority to detain enemy combatants when she was going through her own Senate confirmation.

Both of President Bill Clinton's Supreme Court nominees had received a private stamp of approval from key Republican Senator Orrin Hatch. My hunch is that Graham's kind words for Kagan help her chances with President Obama. He loves to position himself as a moderate between the left and the right.

What do you think?

UPDATE: Chris Bowers made the case for Sears here.

Justice Stevens confirms plans to retire this year

Supreme Court Justice John Paul Stevens will retire this June, as court observers have anticipated for some time. According to the Washington Post,

Aides and Democrats close to the process named three people as likely front-runners for the job: Solicitor General Elena Kagan, whom Obama appointed as the first woman to hold the post, and two appellate court judges, Diane Wood of Chicago and Merrick Garland of Washington.

I'm relieved to know that the Senate will be able to confirm a successor while Democrats still have a sizable majority. We are likely to lose 3-8 Senate seats this November. Any comments or predictions about the upcoming SCOTUS nomination are welcome in this thread.

There's more...

John Paul Stevens Announces Forthcoming Retirement

Not a complete surprise, but somehow a bit surprising nonetheless. Here's The Times:

Associate Justice John Paul Stevens, the leader of the liberals on the Supreme Court, announced on Friday that he will retire at the end of this term, setting up a confirmation battle over his replacement that could dominate the political scene this summer.

In a brief letter to President Obama, whom he addressed as “my dear Mr. President,” Justice Stevens said he was announcing his retirement now because he had “concluded that it would be in the best interests of the Court to have my successor appointed and confirmed well in advance of the commencement of the Court’s next term” in October.

I would assume that Barack Obama has already made his selection for this seat -- or he's close to a final decision -- having more than a year to contemplate the possibility of a Stevens retirement. Also despite the fact that the Republicans hold a sufficiently sizable minority in the Senate to block an Obama nominee should they choose to filibuster, it is exceedingly difficult to imagine this level of obstruction, particularly given the bloc of Lugar/Snowe/Collins/Voinovich/Gregg/Hatch/Bond who tend to be deferential to Presidents -- even ones hailing from the Democratic Party -- on Supreme Court nominations. This isn't to say that there isn't going to be a fight, because the Republicans fight everything these days. But I would expect a fairly uneventful confirmation process, one with minor blowups that are treated like major ones, but one that finds a nominee being confirmed relatively quickly and easily.

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