Ad, and Subtract

There are worse things than pulling the muscles in your lower back.

For example, pulling the muscles in your lower back in the middle of a presidential campaign season.

No way to run. Nowhere to hide. No chance of straightening up long enough to see where the remote has gotten to. Just constant exposure to the drumbeat of political ads, to the point where you could create your own campaign Mad Lib.

β€œIn (year), (presidential candidate) said that he would (incredibly mendacious/naive political claim). But what no one realized is that he would really (severe political crime), the first step in selling the nation to alien beings from the planet (name of celestial body). Don’t give (candidate) the chance to (even more severe political crime). Vote (opposing candidate). It’s for humanity.”

After a while, I wasn’t sure if my back or my brain was hurting worse.

Don’t get me wrong. I actually enjoy politics. Throughout my career, people have constantly asked how I can cover a city council week after week; I always reply that it’s the best soap opera in town. Once you know the characters and the ongoing stories, it gets pretty compelling.

More seriously, there’s something kind of fascinating in watching people try to pick their way toward a solution, whether it’s improving housing standards or figuring out how to replace an ancient, leaky swimming pool. Agree or disagree, whisper or yell, it’s being resolved with words, not fist fights, and that always gives me a little hope.

But the kind of dreck we get on our TV screens every four years doesn’t resolve anything. It rarely even tries.

Both major parties have done it. Both will continue to do it. Wildfires can’t stop it. Mass shootings barely slow it down. It’s like the psycho killer in a bad horror movie, lurching on relentlessly no matter what may stand in the way.

I know, it’s nothing new. Jefferson’s opponents accused him of wanting to confiscate all the Bibles in the country. Lincoln’s charged him with crimes up to and including murder. Mud and money have been part of the game since the earliest days and deploring it is a bit like deploring the common cold; you get a lot of sympathy but few solutions.

But does there have to be so much of it these days?

I keep three or four fact-checking websites close to hand these days, just to shovel through the worst of it. I know a lot of friends who do the same – and who argue about which fact-checkers can be trusted.

And a lot of it’s not even all that effective. I’ve heard political consultants before who estimate that 80 percent or more of campaign spending is wasted. The trouble is, no one knows in advance which dollars will be the waste, so the monetary shotgun gets loaded again, to spray where it will in hope of hitting something.

But what do you do about it?

I’ve had a fantasy for a while now. I know it violates all kinds of constitutional principles, that it’d never happen in the real world. But it has an appealing simplicity to it.

Set a spending limit per state, per presidential candidate. Every $5 over that limit takes a vote off your total. Go $1 million over, lose 200,000 votes in that state … and maybe, in a close race, lose the state itself.

I know, yeah, right. But it gets at the heart of the problem. The campaigns and their PACs have to want to rein themselves in. They have to see a situation where holding back gives more benefits than carrying on does.

Until that happens, we’re likely to see more of the same. And more, and more, and more.

Just thinking about it makes my vertebrae hurt.

Call it a spine of the times.