For the love of soft money, it's hard to remember a more compelling example of political hypocrisy than a GOP advertising campaign launched in the past two weeks against U.S. Sen. Jean Carnahan (D-Mo.) and four other Democratic senators. The dreaded attack-ad genre has been trotted out in the name of "putting our differences aside."
This is like the gun-control lobby shooting up a legislature to drive home the need for fewer firearms.
It's the handiwork of the Republican Senatorial Campaign Committee, which is bankrolling soft-money attacks on five key targets in the upcoming November election. Only in Missouri are the spots airing on both TV and radio; they're on TV in Montana and South Dakota and on radio in Illinois and Minnesota.
In keeping with rules for soft money, the ads don't mention their intended beneficiaries -- in Missouri, Senate hopeful Jim Talent of Missouri. In keeping with rules for soft-pedaling, Talent has ducked any public comment on a campaign run for his benefit.
This is probably wise. Even if the ads weren't so surreal in their paradoxical premise, they would be utterly indefensible because of their deception and crass exploitation of patriotism.
Oh -- and yes, boys and girls, there's that simple tone that would insult the intelligence of your average fourth-grader. Were these commercials converted into a print ad, they'd be written in crayon.
Let's walk through the TV spot running in Missouri -- most heavily, it is believed, in the conservative Springfield market. It's pretty amazing.
The commercial opens with a frame filled with the obligatory American flag, with "United We Stand" superimposed on the screen. The same words appear in the next frame, which features the equally obligatory multiracial group of children gazing out at the camera.
Then we have a mom holding up a child. And an announcer telling us: "When times are tough, Americans are united. We put aside our differences and do what's best for the nation. It's why President Bush and moderate Democrats reached a compromise plan to get America back to work."
With that, we see President George W. Bush at his most loquacious best: "A lot of people have lost their jobs and don't have health care."
The president looks down solemnly and the announcer intones: "But, sadly, partisan Democrats like Jean Carnahan voted against the compromise."
Back to the president, growing even more cerebral: "There's something more important than politics -- and that's to do our jobs."
And the announcer: "Tell Jean Carnahan to do her job."
It would appear that Job One is to help the Senate act quickly to pass the soft-money ban passed last Wednesday by the House of Representatives. It wouldn't ban ads exploiting the American flag, nor would it require the leader of the free world to stop sounding like Dr. Seuss.
But soft money is the resource of choice -- in both parties -- for pollution of the airwaves with "issue ads" (yikes) such as the one run on behalf of Talent. Anything that can be done to slow this $500 million freight train (as of the last election cycle) can't be all bad.
The Democrats have counterpunched with their own "economic stimulus" plan, and it was Carnahan's procedural votes for her own party's alternative that are now characterized as the antithesis of "United We Stand." So, too, was her sponsorship of failed legislation to expand the airline bailout to include a $3.5 billion relief package for aviation workers. That would have expanded health insurance and unemployment benefits for those who lost their jobs in the wake of the Sept. 11 attacks.
In a more civil society, such efforts might at least constitute doing one's "job," even to those on the opposing political side. But civility is as useless as bipartisanship these days: Consider that only 12 of the Senate's 49 Democrats supported Bush's initial, unwarranted tax cuts last spring. Yet all three targeted by the GOP TV attack ads -- Carnahan, Max Baucus (D-Montana) and Tim Johnson (D-S.D.) -- were among the dozen who crossed party lines to support Bush.
In fairness, the senators also hold three seats deemed winnable by the Republicans in November. And it's not as if Democrats wouldn't target Republican centrists were the tables turned. But this entire episode illustrates how little substance matters in American politics.
Don't expect a change in the stupefied tone of it all, at least not in the U.S. Senate race in Missouri. It's not as if Talent himself has no history with this sort of blather. We are reminded of the immortal words he produced a few years ago [Hartmann, "The World According to Jim Talent," July 7, 1999] in response to a West County study group's question on gun control:
"Conservatives believe in the institutions and values of private American life ... liberals don't. Conservatives believe violent crime is the result of choices by a layer of bad people to do wrong. We want to catch and punish these people. Liberals think that the criminals are victims because society has failed to provide them with a good education or a good job, or because honest people have too many firearms. Liberals seek to 'prevent' crime by remedying what they see as the defects in the rest of us."
You think these TV ads for Talent are stupid now?
Wait until the Republicans stop "putting our differences aside."