As we all have learned from watching candidates in both parties mouth patriotic pieties, America is the greatest country in the history of the universe -- and carbon-based life forms in other galaxies all dream of adopting our Way of Life.
You know what is perhaps our crowning national accomplishment? Allowing anyone, even the rankest amateur, to feel like a campaign insider by merely spending 11 hours each day scanning political websites and then devouring the evening's fight card of debates on C-Span.
America's bounty goes beyond the easy stuff like making odd-duck candidates like Christine O'Donnell
and Carl Paladino
so famous they could team up as cable TV hosts after they are inevitably defeated in November. The true glory of our democracy is that we are also awash in sophisticated analysis about everything from the cell-phone problem in polling
to the subtle differences in the congressional race rating systems of Charlie Cook
and Stu Rothenberg
. Nowhere does a poll fall in a forest of data without someone to tweet it.
For all our smug mastery of Campaign 2010 -- and the poll-propelled feeling that the actual election is redundant -- it is unsettling how much in politics is happening beneath the waterline. In an era of parched budgets for news organizations and with an estimated $5 billion being lavished on political persuasion in this campaign cycle, it is impossible for even the most talented and dedicated political reporters to keep up with the onslaught of deceptive ads, shadowy funding sources, and torpedo tactics. The inevitable result: On Election Day, we will know who has won but many of the real reasons why will remain shrouded in mystery.
Every fearful scenario raised by campaign reformers
in January when the Supreme Court upheld corporate political advertising in the Citizens United decision is fast coming true. The realistic danger is not -- despite hyperbolic White House claims -- that Hezbollah or even (quelle horreur!) the French will dominate the airwaves through hidden corporate machinations. Instead, the risk to democracy is from the invisible hand of domestic corporate interests motivated by crass considerations like maintaining their federal subsidies.
A recent New York Times story
, which received far less attention than it deserved, tried to trace the undisclosed funding sources of the deceptively named American Future Fund. (According to ad-buy research by the Wesleyan Media Project
, the American Future Fund purchased 4,567 political TV commercials during the five-week period ending Oct. 7). The group, which operates out of a rented mailbox in an Iowa UPS store, apparently was organized by the chief executive of a large ethanol company. Almost all the Democratic incumbents targeted by the American Future Fund sit -- by chance -- on congressional committees that oversee ethanol.
Perhaps you have noticed how many first-time political candidates have been embarrassed by little things like hard-to-forget Nazi uniforms and half-forgotten risqué photographs in the closing weeks of the campaign. Long-shot Ohio GOP House candidate Rich Iott's penchant for dressing up in SS regalia
is the kind of fun hobby that most staid campaign consultants prefer that their clients avoid. Krystal Ball, who was not going to win her Virginia House race in a difficult year for Democrats in any case, was mortified and then enraged
when hard-to-explain 2004 reindeer-related party photos suddenly popped on Facebook and Republican blogs.
Such is the power of well-timed opposition research to distract and destroy campaigns. After spending $3.4 million of his own money to topple Democratic House incumbent Betty Sutton in Ohio, GOP car dealer Tom Ganley was accused of sexual assault
in a lawsuit two weeks ago. Maybe the timing of the litigation was coincidental (feel free to insert your own snort of disbelief), but it is a safe prediction that this is now one House seat, in Northeast Ohio, that the Republicans are not destined to win.
Both parties practice these black arts of oppo research -- and they often use news organizations as their willing co-conspirators. When the New York Times in May broke the story that Connecticut Democratic Senate candidate Richard Blumenthal had wrongly claimed that he had served in Vietnam
, two Republican candidates (Linda McMahon and her primary rival Rob Simmons) tried to take public credit for leaking the information. (The Times contended that it unearthed the story independently).
With nearly 100 Senate and House seats in play -- a far broader canvas than in most campaign years -- the potential opportunities for undetected dirty tricks would make even Richard Nixon envious. There is no way that the national press corps -- let alone local papers with decimated newsrooms -- will be able to keep track of the bipartisan political mischief. It is a safe and sad bet that House races will be decided by push polls (destructive rumors spread by campaign operatives pretending to be objective survey-takers) and scurrilous leaflets put on windshields in church parking lots on the Sunday before the election.
The biggest untold story of Campaign 2010 is the most obvious -- the way that campaign consultants in both parties are getting even richer from the no-recession-here explosion in campaign spending.
National politics can be cynically seen as an elaborate income-transfer program
taking money from wealthy donors (and now corporate treasuries) and redistributing it to TV stations and needy political operatives. Most fees to outside campaign consultants (particularly the fraction of the TV ad budgets that go to media-production firms) are virtually impossible to decipher from Federal Election Commission reports. Not only are donors to corporate-backed groups like Karl Rove's Crossroads GPS (which just announced that it will spend $50 million in the final weeks of the campaign on House races) hidden, but also secret are the financial arrangements with the ad-makers. On Election Night, there almost certainly will be media consultants, campaign strategists, and pollsters who will be lifting champagne flutes to toast the Citizens United
Money is often what separates true political insiders from eager armchair experts who never miss watching "Morning Joe" and can recite the polling averages from Real Clear Politics in their sleep. Politics, in a sense, has become a sport like baseball. You can brandish all the statistics sitting in the stands, but to truly understand the game it helps to play (and be paid) like Derek Jeter.
Back in the 1950s, the Saturday Evening Post (the magazine best remembered for its Norman Rockwell covers) had a regular feature called "So You Think You Know Baseball?" about the obscure rules of the game. With the final weeks of Campaign 2010 likely to be influenced by shadowy forces and subterranean tactics, it might be time to cut through the fog of poll-based pseudo-certainty with an updated version called "So You Think You Know Politics?"
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