This year’s political mud season is beginning, where campaign ads based on the flimsiest assertions and dirtiest lies will pound voters throughout their days—on televison, radio, online and in the mail. When campaign finance reformers say big money drowns out debate and monopolizes the microphone, this is what they are talking about.
Take Massachusett’s Democrat U.S. Senate candidate Elizabeth Warren. She is arguably the most high profile progressive running for national office. In the past 24 hours, her GOP opponent and Republican allies in right wing media have launched two smear campaigns. The first to appear was an attack in the right-wing blogoshpere that she illegally practiced law in Massachusetts, a very serious charge that could torpedo a senatorial run if not bring disciplinary charges from the state bar association.
That charge was forcibly rebutted by other lawyers who said Warren—who does not has a license to practice law in Massachusetts—can still be “of counsel” on federal cases, because she has passed the bar in other states. But the authors of this attack are anticipating that most of the public will appreciate that distinction.
The second attack on Warren, from incumbent Sen. Scott Brown, who she has pulled ahead of in recent polls, belittles Warren’s claim that she has some Native American blood, saying “who knows?” That seemingly skeptical assertion, has enabled a GOP line of attack to smear Warren by saying that she would not have become a Harvard Law School professor if she did not assert her minority status—which The Boston Globe asserted was not true in its article noting the new attack ad.
These attacks on Warren signal the campaign season has entered a new and dirtier phase. There is no legal penalty for lying in political campaigns, which the U.S. Supreme Court affirmed last spring was a constitutional right in the stolen valor case over falsifying a military record. (It is amazing would-be lawmakers and their allies can lie to voters, while lawyers cannot lie to judges in court without facing serious legal penalities).
Candidates across the country like Warren are now facing an earlier and more intense advertising barrage in 2012 because more money is being spent in all media. According to the Sunlight Foundation, as of this week the total 2012 spending by independent political groups—which were unleashed by the Supreme Court’s 2010 Citizens United decision and a follow-up lower court ruling creating super PACs—exceeded the total independent political spending throughout all of 2010.
The big unanswered question is whether the attacks on candidates like Warren—seeking federal office—will mount in coming weeks if Mitt Romney’s campaign flounders, as recent polls keep suggesting. There is nothing in the scant rules governing independent campaign committees that would stop them from shifting their focus to congressional races. In fact, some pundits are already predicting that is all-but-certain to occur.
As the 2012 ad wars jump to a new orbit, the biggest question—according to this recent panel of political ad makers is whether the so-called politcally independent voter will behave more like a Republican or a Democrat this fall. In 2008, this cohort tacked to Obama and the Democrats. In 2010, they embraced the Tea Party Right as 40 million presidential voters sat out the midterm elections.
For high-profile candidates like Warren, it did not take too long for her state’s biggest newspaper and for supporters in the blogosphere to push back on the latest nasty attacks. A generation ago, these kinds of attacks did not occur until the final 10 days of a race. Today, however, campaigns have become like an extreme sport, where the political consultants are on steroids and the Supreme Court calls their lies ‘free speech.’