'Campaign Beat:' Guns, Attack Ads And The Root Of All Evil

Feb 23, 2018

This week on "Campaign Beat;" Guns, and why Montana politicians don't want to talk about them. attack ads start rolling in the Senate race, Senator Daines on why he avoids town hall meetings, and the media as the root of all evil. Listen in now with Sally Mauk, Chuck Johnson and Rob Saldin.

Sally Mauk: Welcome to "Campaign Beat" our weekly political analysis program. I'm Sally Mauk and I'm joined by University of Montana Political Science professor Rob Saldin, and veteran Capitol Reporter Chuck Johnson.

And Chuck, Senator Jon Tester, as expected, filed for re-election this week despite getting some stitches in his head the day before. And his Republican opponents immediately release some attack talking points that he's part of the, "D.C. swamp," that he's pro illegal immigrants and against tax reform.

Chuck Johnson: Well that's true Sally. Jon Tester filed and it was a vintage Tester performance. He shows up with his wife Sharla, their daughter and son in law, grandkids, wearing a Carhartt jacket and tells the reporters he had 16 staples in his head from a fall on the farm the day before. And, you know, some people do the press conferences with wearing their Sunday-go-to-meeting suits and dresses. This is Tester just dressed like he dresses on the farm. Immediately, of course, the opposition party, the Republicans, started attacking him saying he's part of the swamp. And, you know, that's a preview for what it's going to be all election season long: The tax reform bill that passed last fall and the legal immigrant issue. And I believe they also said he supported sanctuary cities.

SM: It does seem like all the press releases coming out against Tester are coming from sort of a template of arguments they think he's most vulnerable on.

CJ: Yeah, and we can probably assume that those are based on some polling issues where Tester polls the weakest with Montana voters. He also, and I don't know if he did it at this event, but he usually points out that he's had about a dozen bills of his, bills mostly dealing with veterans, signed into law by President Trump. He's indicated that he'll work with the president when he agrees with them, that they'll go their separate ways where they don't.

SM: At least one super PAC, Chuck, is also running attack ads against Tester on social media. There's one out now that has a very clever Olympics theme tied to the Olympics going on in South Korea. And this is, I think, an increasing tool of campaigns to really blanket social media with ads. Very effective probably.

CJ: Well, I don't know if they are or not. They certainly are out there and they're much cheaper to do than run them on television. But the ones that they deem effective will probably be running on television later in the year. I haven't seen this ad and I don't know if it's the same ad that they're using against other Democratic incumbents from states that voted heavily for Trump. I wouldn't be surprised if it's the same ad used many places. But, this is a trend and it saves the money from putting it on TV. But they do reach people this way.

SM: Rob, as we discussed last week in the wake of the Florida school shooting, gun control has become an issue in the 2018 campaign, an issue that I think is gathering momentum. Students around the country including here in Missoula walked out of class this week to demand action. And here's what Hellgate High School student Andrew Midgett had to say:

"I want more gun control. I want to feel safe at my school. I do not feel safe at school and I want to feel safe at school."

And Rob that really succinctly, I think, summarizes what students are saying around the country and demanding politicians respond with action not just with talking points.

Rob Saldin: I think as a political scientist I'm a little doubtful about whether this issue can remain on the front burner up until the primary here in Montana in June, or certainly until November. And part of that is just grounded in the pattern that we can see in previous mass shootings. This issue, like issues in general, tend to fade over time and there's a pattern to how these things play out publicly. Initially there's a dramatic and shocking event which generates very intense public interest. But then a second phase you get into is where there's something of a recognition that really addressing the problem is either more complicated than it initially seemed or that the costs or trade-offs of doing so are higher than we initially anticipated. So these realizations take some of the wind out of the sails, and then you have this kind of gradual, slow, gradual decline of public interest, less media attention, and then people have a way of kind of moving on to the next issue of the day. And political scientists, we even have a term for this, it's called 'the issue attention cycle.' So this is something you can see play out not only in guns but with all sorts of issues. Now, that being said, there are elements of this Florida shooting that seem to be unique, and in particular, the student protests that we've seen here in Missoula but also across the country, and some of the organization that's taking place around that. Some of the kids from that high school in Florida appeared on the Sunday talk shows that got a lot of attention. So we'll see.

It is the case that frequently when there's no movement on something for a long time, sometimes a window of opportunity opens and the stars align. I mean, civil rights bills failed and failed and failed, and then in 1964 they passed. Health reform failed and failed for decades, and then it finally passed. Is this the time for guns? I'm not entirely convinced, but there are some things here that do seem to be unique.

SM: The trickiness of this issue, Rob, for Montana politicians, I think, was exemplified this week when the congressional delegation was asked if they would vote to restore funding for research into gun violence. Restore federal funding for that which was revoked, I think, in the mid '90s. A pretty innocuous thing. None would commit.

RS: Yeah, you know I think for the most part that's not particularly surprising. You know, we kind of touched on some of this last week. But just another thing that stands out, just in the way that Steve Daines and Greg Gianforte and to a degree, Jon Tester, have talked about this this week. They talk about it in a very different way than gun control advocates talk about the issue, right? Daines even used this term 'root causes' which is kind of something I found interesting. That term has been most prominently associated with the left. A decade or two ago in the whole debate over crime they would say, 'well we need to focus on the real causes, the root causes of things like poverty and discrimination and the like.' So it's kind of a term of the social justice left and it was interesting to see Daines use that in the context of gun violence. But what I think it pointed to, and you see this very clearly from Gianforte and a bit from Tester too, is that for them and for the gun rights crowd, this issue of mass shootings is a cultural issue. It's not about guns. It's these things in the cultural milieu. The entertainment industry, the media that glorifies violence bringing fame to these killers. The decline in religion. It's overly permissive parenting, soft criminal justice system and so on. So from this perspective the fundamental problem isn't our guns, it's our depraved culture. And if that's your perspective then that means that regulating guns, it not only misses the target, but it punishes the many many responsible gun owners. I think that's basically where a lot of Montana politicians either come from, or feel that as a matter of political prudence they have to adopt that kind of rhetoric.

SM: Gun control advocates of course point to other cultures having similar issues around violence in the media and that kind of thing, and don't have the gun violence that we have. And the difference, of course, is that they don't have the guns.

RS: Right, yeah, but I think that's where the debate's really at. It's like you have one group of people saying the problem here, basically, is the guns and the other people, basically ignore the guns. All their explanations for what's going on have nothing to do with the guns.

SM: And Chuck, Senator Steve Daines was touring Montana breweries this week — tough job — touting the impacts of tax cuts. But his visits upset some people who, assuming as his press release said, that these were events where he would meet with constituents. Turns out he went out of his way not to meet with people he thought might be critics.

CJ: Well, in at least one instance he came and left earlier than anticipated and wasn't there at the set time, so people that showed up to question Senator Daines didn't have the opportunity, and he had posted the time to be there, but you know, it seems to me he could have put out a tweet that said, 'hey weather's bad we'll be there an hour earlier and leaving an hour earlier,' but he didn't. To some people it looked like he was deliberately trying to elude the people that want to question him.

SM: Well here's what Eileen McGurty of Missoula had to say when Senator Daines made a hasty exit from Big Sky Brewing in Missoula.

"He walked out, got in his SUV, looked right at me and waved when I said, 'Senator I'm a constituent and I just like to ask you a couple of questions'. And he just drove away. I feel like he's ignoring his constituents. It's deplorable."

SM: Who he is ignoring, Chuck, is people who are critics.

CJ: It seems to be the case. I don't recall that he's had a town hall meeting where he's faced critics. I've heard that on his telephone town halls he does take some questions that are critical, but he has, to my knowledge, not had a town hall meeting where he's had a good representation of his constituency and addresses tough questions from the opposition. I could be wrong on that. And Greg Gianforte does the same. Although they both say they have these meetings in small towns where everyone is welcome, but I don't think they've had the kind of meetings like that in Missoula or Billings or Bozeman or Butte or Helena to my knowledge.

SM: Here's how Senator Daines explained his reason for not holding town halls, he explained this in an interview with Yellowstone Public Radio's Nate Hegyi:

'The town hall that you hear about is, we are coming, primarily to some of the resistance movements, frankly, from the pretty far-left folks in the state. That's who's making the loudest noise. It reminds me back when the Tea Party movement was going back in 2010-11, I can tell you John Tester wasn't holding town halls with the Tea Party groups. And I think it's just, they tend to be big protests versus good civil discourse on the issues facing our country.'

SM: And Chuck, Tester's folks have since pushed back on that claim that Senator Tester did not meet with Tea Party folks, saying he did.

CJ: Yeah, that's what they've said and I have no reason to doubt that. But, it's a tough issue because I think Daines and Gianforte know that if they go into certain cities and have a regular town hall they're gonna get pilloried by critics. And we've seen some of those in news stories and C-SPAN stories where congressmen and senators from back east have just been taken apart at these. I wonder if that would be the case in Montana, if you had a moderator and had people write their questions on index cards and had someone asked them in a way that wasn't nasty? But we we'll not know.

SM: Rob, Montana Public Radio is conducting some informal polls of voters around the state during this campaign season to find out what issues they're concerned about, and some of the things they mentioned are health care, education, Social Security, etc. But I was struck by what Jeff of Great Falls had to say in a recent poll that MTPR conducted there:

"I think the media is the root of all evil. I think they're putting. words into people's mouths. They're taking things out of context, on both sides, and they make this just a bickering argument now. It's hard to believe anybody. I can't believe anything I read or listen to anymore."

SM: The root of all evil. Ouch.

RS: Well, I think big picture, Jeff's comments there highlight a much broader trend, and that is the collapse of support in institutions all across our society. You know, the only two institutions that seem to routinely still be held in reasonably good regard are the military and small businesses. Everything else is totally collapsed. That includes our governing institutions our universities, certainly the media. And so that comment, I think, you need to see it in this broader context of the collapse of our institutions and being seen as legitimate by the American people. As it relates to the media in particular, that's certainly not a new critique about the media particularly on the cultural right. I mean, this is the outlook that has been an absolute staple of talk radio going back many decades. One obvious big difference now is that the president routinely condemns the media for their 'fake news,' and that of course is the kind of rhetoric that would have been considered, until just the last couple of years, just wildly beyond the pale, needlessly divisive and totally irresponsible by previous presidents. I mean it's something that they just wouldn't have done in that way. And so that only fans the flames of this kind of thing.

SM: Chuck, everything people cite for whatever argument they're making comes from, 'the media.' I mean, there's never been a time where people have paid more attention to what media is out there, it seems to me. That seems to be the irony of this argument.

CJ: Well, yes and no. Although, a lot of, I guess we could say social media too, not the traditional media, you know radio and television and newspapers. But I think there's a lot of information on social media including information that gives people information about why they think the media is bad, or the media is good. So the interesting thing would have been a follow up question of this fellow to see if he was a Trump supporter or not. I don't know.

SM: Well it certainly gives us all pause.

You've been listening to "Campaign Beat" our weekly political analysis program. I'm Sally Mauk and I've been speaking with veteran Capitol Reporter Chuck Johnson and University of Montana Political Science Professor Rob Saldin. Thanks guys, and we'll continue the discussion next week.