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'Newt Gingrich has more baggage than the airlines." Romney is akin to "big spending liberals." Beware of "smooth talking politicians." In Iowa, after a breather for Christmas, voters are once more being deluged with attack ads 24/7 that go after whoever is leading in the polls.
The attack ads are largely funded by super PACs. These nominally independent political action committees are run by relatives or close associates of the candidates. These organizations are allowed to raise anonymous sums of unlimited amounts. And as Mitt Romney has pointed out, by law, they can't "coordinate" with a candidate. So, they can do the dirty work while the candidates profess their innocence or impotence. "I'm not allowed to communicate with a super PAC in any way, shape or form," says Romney. "If we coordinate in any way whatsoever, we go to the big house." But he later admitted he could speak publicly against negative ads but wouldn't, "because this is politics."
The result of this absurdity is a campaign of relentless negative attacks and consummate silliness. There are no super PAC ads calling for new policies on poverty. No ads detailing clear answers to mass unemployment. Negative ads are on the air because they work.
When Newt Gingrich complained about the barrage of negative ads unleashed by the "independent" super PAC "related to" Romney's candidacy, Romney replied that "if you can't stand the heat in this little kitchen, wait until the Obama Hell's kitchen turns up the heat."
Sadly, that is probably true. We're headed into a campaign in which dueling super PACs, funded by anonymous contributions, including millions from corporations, will spend a billion or so on ads attacking the other candidate.
And candidates will repeat, to use the technical legal term, lies that the press will be too intimidated or too impotent to correct. So, Rick Perry says that there is a war on Christianity across America. Newt Gingrich summons up Sharia law as a mortal threat and "dictatorial" judges that should be impeached or ignored at will. Mitt Romney charges that Obama wants not equal opportunity but equal results - without any conceivable evidence to support the charge.
Amidst the din, Americans will have to sort out who has any clue about what to do about the fundamental problems facing this society.
Across the country, teachers are being laid off. Preschool and afterschool programs are being cut back. Fees and tolls are going up. Buses and subways are hit with service reductions. Layoffs will reduce the number of police who keep our streets safe, the inspectors who keep our food safe. Wages are declining; mass unemployment continues. Home heating support for the elderly poor will be reduced this winter.
All these are treated as separate issues, as products of necessary "shared sacrifice" to deal with budget deficits. But in fact, they are about two fundamental questions this election should address:
Who pays for the mess? And how do we pay for it in a fashion that will put people to work and strengthen our economy for the future?
We need a big, honest and clear debate about these questions. President Obama invited it in his speech in Osawatomie, Kan. Mitt Romney burlesqued it in his "closing statement" in New Hampshire. The attack ads that are what most Americans will see of the campaign will duck it altogether.
This will be the test for citizens and for the press. Can we force the candidates to talk clearly about their vision and agenda for America? If Iowa, after many debates and weeks of attack ads, is any example, we haven't gotten there yet.