One ad explains why Sen. Mark Pryor made the toughest vote of his career. In another ad, the Pryor campaign misrepresents his opponent’s position. The first ad features the candidate speaking directly into the camera and is effective. The second uses faceless narrators and is terrible. That’s not a coincidence.
Let’s start with the first ad. Pryor and his father, former Sen. David Pryor, describe Mark Pryor’s struggles with his insurance company when he was battling cancer. "No one should be fighting an insurance company while you’re fighting for your life," Mark Pryor says in the ad. "That’s why I helped pass a law that prevents insurance companies from canceling your policy if you get sick or deny coverage for pre-existing conditions."
That law was the Affordable Care Act, otherwise known as Obamacare. The ad has gotten some national attention because a Democratic senator in a tough re-election bid in a Republican-leaning state embraced his vote for Obamacare, even if he doesn’t actually use the name. Good for him for explaining his reasoning. That’s what campaigns are for – to give voters information so they can make decisions.
Then there’s the "Ebola" ad, which also has received national attention, but for a different reason.
You don’t hear much from Pryor in that ad, except for the legally required "I’m Mark Pryor, and I approved this message." In that ad, not only one but two faceless narrators say Pryor’s opponent, Rep. Tom Cotton, "voted against preparing America for pandemics like Ebola. ... Instead Cotton voted for tax cuts for billionaires funding his campaign rather than protecting our families."
The vote to which the Pryor campaign is referring was to pass the Pandemic and All-Hazards Preparedness Reauthorization Act of 2013, which funded preparations for responding to a public health emergency such as a rapidly spreading disease. The bill passed 395-29 in the House on Jan. 22, 2013. As the ad correctly states, Cotton was the only Arkansas congressman to vote no.
How could Cotton vote against "protecting our families"? His spokesman, David Ray, said Cotton objected to a part of the bill enabling the federal Department of Health and Human Services to enact a mandatory deployment of public health workers, including those employed by states, during a major health crisis. Cotton believed the mandatory call-up was contrary to existing law and Supreme Court precedent. The bill did not pass as written. In March, Cotton voted for a similar bill that made the call-up of health workers a voluntary one. Pryor voted for the same bill, and that’s what funded the program.
So Cotton didn’t really vote "against preparing America for pandemics like Ebola." He voted against an early version of a particular bill. Campaigns use votes like this to mislead voters about their opponents all the time, but this one is so over-the-top that Cotton’s campaign is now featuring it on its own website, while it’s not on Pryor’s.
On Wednesday, Pryor held a press conference defending the ad. He brought up Cotton’s votes against the farm bill and disaster aid and said this is part of a pattern where Cotton votes against appropriate government spending.
He made a better case talking in person than those two faceless narrators did reading a script on television.
In fact, the most effective campaign ads right now feature the candidates talking directly to voters. Those would be the Pryor cancer ad already mentioned, and Asa Hutchinson’s ad where he talks about his granddaughter inspiring him to support a law requiring high schools to offer a computer coding class.
Those ads work because they allow voters to see the candidates offering a positive vision, but what if candidates also spoke for themselves when they wanted to criticize their opponents? I’m betting their messages would be much more responsible and measured. In one earlier ad, Pryor himself had this to say, calmly, about Cotton regarding Medicare: "My opponent voted to withhold benefits until age 70, and I’m trying to stop that." When candidates want to distinguish themselves from their opponents in a 30-second ad, that’s how they should do it.
Campaigns have decided it’s bad for their candidates to be seen criticizing their opponents in an ad. Actually, I would respect them more if they did it that way. My outlook is very Southern. If you can’t say something nice about someone, don’t say anything at all. But if you think something not nice needs to be said, say it yourself.
(Follow Steve Brawner on Twitter @stevebrawner)