The last part of the 30-second video begins with then-congressional candidate and now-Rep.-elect Scott Peters strolling along the beach with his words, “….I say no budget, no pay. If Congress doesn’t do their job and balance the budget,” with a shrug indicating how simple the solution is, “they don’t get a paycheck.”
To confirm that this was not an isolated ad, but a concerted strategy, in a local TV news interview Peters dispelled any ambiguity about his proposal. He ignored its political impossibility and, since the interviewer was shaky about government finance and took him seriously, he affirmed his position with, “Look, if you can’t balance the budget every year, which is your job, then you shouldn’t get a paycheck.”
Brilliant, in that without any mention of his party affiliation he managed to identify not only with a Republican value, but that of the most extreme Tea Party wing, combining both contempt for politicians and the goal of drastically shrinking government. With this he obviously hoped to bond with the voters who have disdain for all elected officials, implying that their salary, their main incentive, should be withheld for lack of performance. I’m sure this tested well by Peters’ media advisors, being carefully crafted to be taken by the viewers as differentiating him from those grubby legislators, especially the one he wanted to unseat (Brian Bilbray), who just builds up his pension while not taking the difficult stands that could ameliorate the nation’s structural problems.
The unexamined irony is that he makes his argument by using, and thus perpetuating, the most egregious defects in our electoral system. While he blames his opponent for not finding a way to avoid the fiscal cliff, his solution is to propose that Congress pass a law that would, if ever adopted, not only speed the country to this economic precipice, but would lead to even a greater economic catastrophe. What he is proposing is not the fiscal cliff’s immediate withdrawal from the national economy of a half a trillion dollars, but one that would be twice as severe.
This casual proposal is not supported by any mainstream academic or political school of thought, as even the Paul Ryan budget, passed unanimously by the Republicans in the House of Representatives, does not project a balanced budget until many decades in the future. This campaign ad, one addressed to a literate district, casts a bright light on two aspects of American culture in the second decade of the 21st century that are deeply troubling. The first is the decline of serious rational processing of information among even educated Americans; the second is the increase in political tribalism that makes such campaign tactics acceptable if it results in partisan gain, even to those who understand its harmful consequences.
There is one defense, a justification of Peters’ action described here. Arguably, because of this pandering proposal, Peters received the handful of extra votes to win the seat in the House. And because of this, he could be instrumental, along with a few members from the other side of the aisle, in forming a coalition to pass a reasonable budget. Will this be vindication for his distortion, his adopting a Tea Party meme to win the election?
If Democrats want to validate their claim of being the “reality party” those members who flout its principles must be called to account. Whether such pandering described here results in victory or defeat, this is secondary to the damage done to the integrity of our political system. There is no doubt that such pandering, whether called Realpolitik or just effective electoral campaigning, has been going on for a long time and is integral to the very nature of democracy. But to ignore its costs, the long-term effect of this debasement of an ideal, is as irresponsible as denying that use of cheap coal to power electric generation has an adverse effect on this planet.
This is the first major election after the Supreme Court’s Citizens United decision unleashed unlimited cash to swamp viewers with political ads, mostly negative. This decision was based on, among other less noble reasons, the conviction that the American voters will not be swayed by a deluge of advertisements, but can understand enough of the central issues to make an informed choice. Peters’ ad not only failed to provide any realistic information on the actual fiscal choices to be made or his position on them; but by distorting the reality of what a balanced budget means, he is increasing the potency of unlimited emotional messages allowed by this court decision.
In the national election campaign just completed, with hundreds of thousands of advertisements, almost all of which make spurious personal attacks on the opponent that avoid actual issues, why would this one be notable? First, it shows how universal this is, extending to this educated prosperous district that includes several prestigious universities. It demonstrates how far we have deviated from the essential element of democratic governance, that universal suffrage requires informed involved voters. If such blatant pandering can win an election in this district, why bother to ever try to do more, like actually argue real options on divisive complex issues?
While this example happens to be that of a Democrat, there are abundant comparable campaigns by those of the other major party. It has become a race to the bottom that can only be reversed if such blatant distortions of issues exact a cost on those who choose to sway voters in this way. Since such speech remain protected by our First Amendment, only the voters can combat such excesses by exacting a political cost for such strategies, most effective when the candidate is condemned for it by those of his or her own party.
We hold the key, the only one that has the possibility of making the ideal of electoral democracy into a reality.
Al Rodbell lives in Encinitas. He blogs on AlRodbell.com.
Correction: We’ve fixed the spelling of Brian Bilbray’s name from the original post.
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