U.S. Sen. Jon Tester is “engaging in dishonest, misleading attacks in a desperate attempt to distract” from his liberal political record. He is out of touch and hypocritical, “desperately attempting to re-write history and distract Montanans from his allegiance” to the failed policies of President Obama.
U.S. Rep. Denny Rehberg has left a string of broken promises. He has voted five pay raises for himself and has “wined and dined across the world on 13 luxury trips, paid for by lobbyists and special interests.” He supports tax breaks for millionaires who ship jobs overseas, and he is “falsely claiming” to be a rancher.
Such is the state of Montana’s campaign for the U.S. Senate, at least according to the campaigns themselves. But it’s nothing personal, not even when Republicans refer to Sen. Tester as “Raymond Jon Tester,” a form of name calling that most of us have abandoned by age 6. The millions of dollars pouring into the state aimed at shifting the balance of power in the Senate don’t really have anything to do with Jon Tester or Denny Rehberg. It’s just politics.
And politics, 2012 style, doesn’t have much to do with sifting through the records of competing candidates, trying to figure out which one has the best balance of experience, judgment and temperament to lead America through troubled times. Instead, it’s all about the red team vs. the blue team. You have to choose sides; you can’t root for both the Cats and the Griz.
So what’s new? Political parties always have tried to win support for their team.
What’s new is, of course, Citizens United and related court decisions that allow unlimited anonymous donations to political campaigns. Because Montana’s Senate race is considered so close and so crucial, many of those donations will be aimed here.
Remember, the people who are donating these millions don’t really care if Rep. Rehberg is really a rancher or if Sen. Tester is trying to rewrite history. They are trying to get their team in charge of the Senate; the merits of individual candidates have nearly nothing to do with it.
Unless you are better at blocking out unpleasant memories than I am, you recall Sen. Tester’s last race against incumbent Conrad Burns. In the final weeks before the election, nearly every available broadcast spot was filled with attacks by one candidate or the other.
Delivering my Thursday newspapers, listening to hour after hour of these ads, I wondered how many persuadable voters were still listening to, say, Sean Hannity’s radio show hoping for some final insight into whether Sen. Tester or Sen. Burns would best represent Montana. A dozen?
The barrage brought back former Air Force Chief of Staff Curtis LeMay’s famous admonition: “We should bomb ‘em back to the Stone Age, and then make the rubble bounce.”
The bouncing rubble of American politics has made 2012 a dispiriting time. We are making voting more difficult and less fun. Wandering through MetraPark to cast a ballot during the June 5 primary was an exercise in sterility and anonymity. The friendly two-block walk to the local precinct, where I was greeted my name, vanished into a whirl of numbers and paperwork.
At the same time, we are making it far easier to spend money to influence elections. The biggest players in Montana politics in November may well be people who have never been here, who know none of our concerns and who care nothing about our candidates.
None of which is to suggest that elections no longer matter. In the Senate, for example, legislation is regularly stymied by abuse of the filibuster, which was never intended to be a brake on even the most routine business of Congress.
Government also affects the economy. Since the Great Depression, America has dealt with economic slowdowns with Keynesian approaches: pumping government money into the economy to stir up demand that a sluggish economy cannot create. Even during the Reagan recovery, government spending and employment expanded dramatically.
A similar approach began in the Obama administration, and Gross Domestic Product went from minus 9 percent in the fourth quarter of 2009 to plus 3 percent three years later. Since then, government spending has grown at the lowest rate since the Eisenhower administration, hundreds of thousands of government jobs have been lost, and the recovery has stalled.
Did the stimulus save us from depression? Is frugality stymieing recovery? Good questions, worthy of discussion.
And healthcare matters. I just got out of a four-day hospital stay, eternally grateful for my wife’s government-provided health insurance. Without it, I would be like the tens of millions of uninsured Americans: very sick, or very broke, or both.
In the same way, we could have a good discussion over whether we should prefer Kim Gillan’s proven legislative record for the U.S. Congress over Steve Daines’ proven business record. Or whether we should prefer a governor with Rick Hill’s experience and baggage or Steve Bullock’s energy and liberal notions.
Finding answers to those questions will be harder than ever this year. A small number of very wealthy people have a big interest in seeing that these important discussions never take place. And they are counting on Montana voters being too indifferent and discouraged to notice the difference.