Wednesday, April 9, 2008

The governor did wrong -- but ratchet the rhetoric down a notch next time

Over at Big Sky Cairn, we posted on the governor's recent alleged breaking of campaign laws by doing public service announcements after he had officially filed for re-election. See also Western Word for more background on the imbroglio.

It is a valid and seemingly well-substantiated charge on the part of the Republicans, and as we have pointed out before, this sort of thing is absolutely necessary in order to keep the other party honest. But as we also pointed out in that post (dealing with the governor's fundraising trip to Kentucky Derby,) the GOP doesn't do itself any favors when it overdoes the rhetoric. Follow the preceding link for our full diatribe, but the heart of the critique was this:

It's just fine to file a complaint against the Dems when they appear to have broken a campaign law. In fact, it's necessary.

But at the same time, we should treat it like taking out a stinking bag of trash -- it's gotta be done, there's no pleasure in it, and we would prefer that the trash wasn't stinking in the first place.

The Montana GOP, rather than treat this like a big deal... should just matter-of-factly file a complaint when the Dems get caught...

...if the Dems want to claim to be the party of the squeaky clean, we'll hold them to it.

So the Montana Headlines reaction was less than enthusiastic upon reading things like this in the GOP press release:

...violating a key campaign finance law -- Well, maybe. Will Montanans agree that this is a "key" law that is a linchpin of democracy, or will they see it as a good law that makes sense (does any Montanan want public officials to use their positions to get what amounts to free campaign ads?) We think the latter.

...he's going to pay dearly for his illegal activity...
-- Well, maybe. But as the Dems proved in their having to pony up money in FEC fines for violations in the Tester campaign, they tend to look at the paying of fines for breaking political practice laws as part of the cost of doing business. They probably have a line-item for it in the governor's campaign budget. With as much money as the governor has in his war-chest, he'd hardly feel the impact of the fines, even if they were in the tens of thousands of dollars.

And in addition, we don't yet know that he is even going to have to pay, so it shouldn't be stated with such certainty that "he's going to pay dearly." Stating that someone is guilty before they've even been officially charged by authorities, let alone convicted, is a practice that we would think Republicans would rather leave to Democrats.

After all, it was the governor himself (demonstrating the fact that he either doesn't understand the principle of "innocent until proven guilty," or doesn't care) who boasted during the Tester campaign that Sen. Conrad Burns was definitely going to jail and that Burns and Abramoff were going to share a cell with bunk-beds.

The fact that Governor Schweitzer signed this measure into law, and then turned around and broke that very same law, is the sort of arrogant, heavy-handed tactics Montanans have come to expect from him.
-- Maybe. It would be in character, if the stories are to be believed. But it might also just be a careless mistake, as we noted in our Big Sky Cairn post.

There is a difference between intentionally arrogant actions in which one knowingly flouts the law and the kind of passive arrogance that is shown by not bothering to think about the fact that there might be rules to be followed. Montanans will understand the difference, and if it is clear that the governor was just being careless, then overstating the case isn't going to help the overall GOP message about the governor and the unsuitability of his style of governance. Some people might just think he's being picked on, and feel sorry for him.

There are more examples in the GOP complaint itself of what seems to be overstated language (keeping in mind that in a formal complaint, specific language sometimes has to be used to match the language in the law being appealed to,) but regular MH readers will get the idea.

Measured rhetoric is generally more effective than overwrought rhetoric. Republicans do better when we act like responsible adults and methodically expose Democratic misdeeds using carefully chosen, even understated, words that we don't later have to retract or revise. There is room for humorous hyperbole in a blog-post or a stump-speech, but press releases and formal complaints should be, if anything, understated, when making charges against Democrats.

The governor probably did wrong on this one. The Commissioner of Political Practices has made the initial statement that this should have been filed as an ethics complaint, and thus not made public, but the details will be examined and we'll find out the facts.

Based on the Gazette article, there seems to be a definite problem -- since on the one hand a spokesman for the governor claims that "no state funds were used," and yet the Agriculture Department official says he spent 10-12 hours preparing the ad, then used a government e-mail account to send it out to radio stations. That sounds like state funds were used -- so why say they weren't? And the ads were played free of charge as public service announcements -- precisely the kind of thing the law intended to prohibit. So why try to claim that they somehow weren't covered by the law? As Electric City pointed out, the thing to watch is how the governor responds.

And on that score, our chief executive gets an obvious failing score. The failure to own up to the truth on this is potentially much more serious than the transgression itself.

But the making of these ads, while probably against the law, doesn't rise to the level of an Abscam scandal -- it's rather just one more relatively small and tedious example of why we need someone with a serious and professional attitude as our new governor. Like, say, Roy Brown. And that, we believe, is something that the people of Montana are going to be able to understand quite well by the time this campaign is over.


Jay Stevens said...

Nice post. Frankly both parties engage in this kind of constant hyperbole. They make bloggers look like reasonable people. It's gotten so bad, I generally just delete those things as soon as I get 'em.

GeeGuy said...

Hear hear!

Montana Headlines said...

Yes, it is bad when bloggers are often more careful in their words and more quick to correct themselves than are the pros.

Don't get me wrong -- if the governor isn't supposed to be doing PSA's, then the GOP needs to call him on it. And if there's a discrepancy between what he says and what his employee is saying, he needs to be called on it until the truth is determined. The reverse is true if Republicans have done something that appears to be questionable.

But please, everybody, just the facts without embellishment or histrionics. And if there is the possibility of a more innocent explanation, what is wrong with leaving room for that possibility while calling for explanations? I'm embarrassed when I make an accusation that is shown to be wrong or exaggerated. I'd think that everyone would feel that way.

Randy Vogel noticed that the leftie blogs tended to give him the benefit of the doubt and retracted what little negative had been said about him there, and he appreciated it. He's still waiting for the Dem party to act with equal maturity.

I'm sure that you have similar stories.

BTW, Jay, I've been meaning to get over to 4&20 to thank you for your kind comments about MH when we were named as one of the three Montana blogs on the WP's "The Fix."

You were too humble, I notice, to point out that both leftie Montana blogs on that list are more or less yours -- the one you built, and the one where your writing now dominates the field. Good job!

Anonymous said...

MH has some good advice. Jay's is worth considering. But I couldn't help but notice that it didn't quite jibe with what one sometimes sees over at Left in the West--some of it under the name of some writer going by the name of Jay Stevens.

One recent item there claimed that Dennis Rehberg "gave lapdogs a bad name." Another said Karl Rove created an "unusually foul stench" when he visited Missoula recently to talk to Republicans.

Then there was the observation that all but one of the Republicans running for the Baucus Senate seat needed medication or anger management classes.

Then there was the post that called Dan McGee "unhinged" for his views on climate change, and had a photo that depicted him in a tin foil hat.

I guess Jay must have missed these items when he was deleting offensive postings.