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Seeing beyond the ‘spin’

Tom Rippinger | Monday, October 4, 2004

It truly is a shame when a decision comes down to Sen. John Kerry windsurfing across your television screen, or Michael Moore’s depictions of President George W. Bush. I even have this great picture of Kerry dropping a football like a girl, but we won’t go there today. Negative campaign ads are wrong and I think Katie and I agree with that. Scaring old people into saying Republicans will throw away their Social Security, or scaring others into thinking Kerry will hand the country over to the terrorists are simply not true assertions. Assuming we all agree these attack ads are wrong, which I think we do, who can undecided voters trust to give them unbiased information? Instead of dribbling on about how sad politics have become, I’d like to tell you what you should do to find unbiased information.

Today’s column was a great opportunity for me to take a step back and put myself in the shoes of the undecided voter. First of all I’ll turn off my daily dose of Fox News, CNN and the Internet wires I receive from various Washington think tanks. All of these are interested sources that have some sort of agenda behind them, regardless of whether or not it conforms to your viewpoint. Political parties, think tanks, 527’s and media outlets are all biased. Money, ratings and power plays are what drive any of the organizations involved in the election.

With that being said, I’ll share an experience I had with a great professor during the Washington Semester Program for our Lobbying and Influence Group class. Professor Steve Billet was a former lobbyist for AT&T and director of external programs for the George Washington University School of Political Management. The class taught us a great deal about how things really work in Washington, straight from the mouth of a “no-bull old school Southern Democrat” who wanted to shoot straight with us to teach us a few things about politics.

The class was on lobbying, which is actually quite useful in understanding the electoral rhetoric, because in effect both candidates are lobbying for your vote. Busy person that you are, you cannot sit down and read the Patriot Act, the Sept. 11 report and “Plan of Attack” by Bob Woodward to inform your vote. Since both parties know this, the most effective tool to mobilize your support is fear. Hence the slogans “Help is on the Way,” “Keeping America Safe” or, my personal favorite, “Vote or Die.” When push comes to shove, lobbyists use this force in the opposite direction to influence legislation. If factory A in district B closes because of policy C, then that will be costing a congressman possible votes and campaign money in elections.

Staying fair to the reality of the profession, personal relationships are much more effective for lobbyists, but push comes to shove scenarios can begin to resemble the viciousness of the close election we now face. Our last class project was to do a paper on an interest group that lobbies or spends money promoting an agenda in Washington. We were each assigned to do interviews with the various organizations. For larger more impersonal organizations above and beyond the effectiveness of personal interviews, the most effective tool in determining the motives of these organizations in Washington was tracking their contributors. This was possible through a handy Web sites like www.opensecrets.org or www.fec.gov.

Federal election laws have become very strict as far as reporting the sources of campaign funds. Along with the tool of the Internet, the average voter has an amazing tool to sidetrack the rhetoric of both sides. These are tools that never would have been accessible to the general voter as recently as the early nineties.

If you haven’t made up your mind yet, please don’t do it based on something you see on TV. You can use the Internet to do your homework on the 527’s behind the vicious ads and who is behind them. At the same time, you can get a picture of what key industries support each candidate. Usually money is a more trustworthy measure of human intentions than word alone. You even can do fun things like see how much money Alec Baldwin or Tom Hanks gave to Kerry/Edwards 2004. If our class could determine the true intentions of complex Washington advocacy organizations by following the money trail, average Internet-savvy Notre Dame students should easily be able to see the interests of each party. If you can’t do all that, you can read Katie and me battle out the issues every Tuesday until Election Day.

Tom Rippinger is a senior political science major. He supports President George W. Bush and is the President of the Notre Dame College Republicans. He can be contacted at trippin1@nd.edu.

The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of the Observer.