Money in Politics: Plumbing’s not the Problem, It’s the Quality of the Water

Photograph by Chip Somodevilla/Getty Image

A worker removes the plastic from a mirror on the floor ahead of the Republican National Convention at the Tampa Bay Times Forum on August 26, 2012.

“Here’s the problem with money in politics,” says Mike Murphy, a seasoned and semi-retired Republican TV ad strategist:

It’s the content.

“I’m less worried about the plumbing than I am the quality of the water,” Murphy said today in Tampa, as the Republican Party whose candidates that he advised for many years was preparing to open its presidential nominating convention. With about $9.37 being spent on every voter for TV ads, he said, “the number has a shock value, but in my view it’s the content — the quality of the discourse.”

In his day, he joked, they’d keep the percentage of untrue statements to under a third.

The money is the problem, says Bill Burton, one of President Barack Obama’s backers.

“Money in politics is bad,” said Burton, director of the Obama-backing Priorities USA Action super-PAC.  Pointing to the likes of Las Vegas casino Sheldon Adelson, who has donated $10 million to a super-PAC backing Republican Mitt Romney, Burton suggested that “the voices that get drowned out are the folks of the middle class.”

The two and others met at a discussion today sponsored by Bloomberg, the University of Southern California’s Annenberg Center on Communication, Leadership and Policy and the Institute of Politics at Harvard University’s John F. Kennedy School of Government, one of many events Bloomberg and its partners are sponsoring across the river from the Republican National Convention.

The independent money flooding this election is a double-edged sword, Murphy suggested — it’s a big “cannon,” but it’s uncontrollable, and candidates will still be held accountable for what’s said on their behalf.

“We have opened up the gates, and the truth is, neither side is incentivized to spend less,” Murphy said.

Charles Spies, founder of the super-PAC Restore Our Future backing Romney, maintained that committees such as his and the candidates are operating independently.

“These are not unsophisticated people,” Murphy said. They at least “know how to join in the chorus” and sing from the same “sheet music,”  he said,  suggesting that they are complying with the laws of independent operation while acting “in concert.”

The talk turned to Joe Soptic, a former steel worker who lost his job after Bain Capital took over his company. He appeared in a video produced by Burton’s super-PAC suggesting that his wife died of cancer because she lacked the insurance the family had before Bain entered the picture. Romney — who made his fortune at Bain and left before the episode in question — simply doesn’t care, Soptic says in the ad.

From the start, Burton said, Obama’s super-PAC knew that it would have to challenge Romney’s business record, on which he is running for president. Burton said: “We didn’t think those stories ought to be off-limits just because they are sad and uncomfortable. ”

The ad has aired only once on TV, by accident, in Ohio.

Yet the ad, which Burton says cost $8,500 to produce,  has caught 1.2 million views on YouTube.

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