In Pursuit of Performative Purity

A kerfuffle has seized the attention of #vtpoliland. It’s over the acceptance of Super PAC money, or connivance with those entities, by Democratic candidates for U.S. House.

And I’m here to tell you it’s fake news.

At a candidates’ forum last week, Lt. Gov. Molly Gray pestered Senate President Pro Tem Becca Balint over accepting donations from Super PACs. The exchange ended with Balint forswearing such funds.

This week, we got Phase 2 of the kerfuffle, as both VTDigger and Seven Days posted stories about “redboxing” on Balint’s campaign website. That’s the practice of posting content meant to signal Super PACs about preferred messaging in any independent ads the organizations run. Nudge nudge wink wink, don’tcha know.

The fact that both outlets ran the same story on the same day tells me that they were likely tipped off by the Gray campaign, which sees this issue as a way to counter the impression that Gray is the establishment candidate. Which, to me, is a sign that Team Gray is a little desperate, going negative against the apparent front-runner.

Here’s the thing. Not all Super PACs are created equal, and it’s a fallacy to say that all Super PAC money is inherently evil. There are Super PACs run by giant corporations and oligarchs; there are others run progressive organizations, by labor unions, by LGBTQ+ groups.

Bernie Sanders has accepted Super PAC money from such groups, for Pete’s sake. So Neither Pat Leahy nor Peter Welch have had any previous qualms about such money. The latter has found religion this year as he tries to advance to the U.S. Senate, but he’s never seen Super PACs as universally problematic before.

Gray is choosing to draw the purity line at Super PACs because it suits her interests, since Balint could hope for significant support from LGBTQ+ Super PACs. Gray does not draw the line at accepting donations from corporate lobbyists in the Beltway, because that’s a source of her strength. Both sources can be questionable; both can be perfectly fine. Gray’s stance is a matter of political convenience, not superior character.

The anti-Super PAC line was picked up by Gray supporter and former governor Howard Dean, who posted links to the Seven Days piece and accused Balint of lying at last week’s forum when she said she would not accept any Super PAC money.

Which she hasn’t.

After getting some blowback, Dean retreated a bit, equating the redboxing to accepting donations. Which is quite the rhetorical leap. Or a lie, if you prefer. If it’s redboxing, it might potentially lead to Super PAC expenditures on Balint’s behalf. But no such thing has happened yet.

The thing that really gets me is Howard Dean has never been opposed to Super PAC money before now. In fact, only a few years ago he was happy to help lead Onward Together, a Super PAC organized by Hillary Clinton.

At the time, he referred to progressives opposed to Super PACs as “the whiny party — the party that doesn’t really want to win. They just want to be pure.”

In 2016, Dean made the same point that I made above: leftist candidates are happy to get money from leftist Super PACs. He said that progressives who criticized Onward Together were applying “a double standard.”

Well, governor, do you think Molly Gray is “whiny”? Do you think she’s using a double standard?

One more thing. In 2020, Gray was subject to criticism and media coverage of her terrible voting record. She didn’t much like it at the time, saying it was a distraction from the issues. But now she’s trying to do the same thing: Turn away from the issues and focus on a perceived character flaw in her opponent.

She might get a bit of political advantage out of it. She might even succeed in forcing the Balint campaign to remove the infamous red box. But she is making a distinction without difference. And as I have written previously, she’s a campaign finance hypocrite. And so is Howard Dean.

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