The Montana Senate race: analyzing the analysis

Has anybody else noticed that there’s been some excellent analysis of the Montana Senate race in the state’s newspapers lately?

First it was Gwen Florio’s article on the upcoming Butte debate. In it, Florio mentions the latest attack on Tester by the Montana GOP:

On Thursday an e-mail from the Montana Republican Party said Tester “leaves Montana children exposed to sexual predators” because in 2001 he voted, along with the majority of the state Senate, against legislation requiring Internet filters to protect children from obscene materials at libraries.

As usual in these news articles, Florio quotes a Democrat for an opposing view:

“Jon Tester believes in less government regulation, not more, and more local control,” responded Tester campaign spokesman Matt McKenna.

Normally, the story would end here with a sort of bitter “he said, she said” exchange which would only exacerbate partisan discord. No conservative will believe McKenna’s remarks because he’s a Democrat. No liberal will pay attention to the attack, because it was started by the GOP. In the end, you’d have to go to the blogs to see what the issue was about and what it really meant.

But Florio pressed on and did a little legwork, pulling up a quote from an objective source familiar with the vote:

Karen Strege, who was state librarian at the time, said in a telephone interview Thursday that she testified before the Legislature that the bill would merely have duplicated pending federal regulations, and “I think that was persuasive to people.”

There you go. The bill Tester voted against would have been unnecessary, redundant, useless. A stunt. There’s the facts, and the Montana GOP comes out looking a little worse for wear, as it should. Instead of discussing issues, they attacked Tester’s character with a false accusation.

And that’s what blogs – or at least this blog – has been asking of newspapers. Not to be biased – we can handle that – but to present the issues as they are, not as the two political camps present them. Fine, get quotes from both parties, but then give us some facts. Correct the politicians when they err. I don’t care if s/he’s Democratic or Republican.

In a similar vein, the Billings Gazette has started a useful feature of analyzing the Burns/Tester commercials. In today’s paper, the DSCC oil tycoon ad and the Burns ad on Tester’s Iraq stance were given the treatment. And I think they did a decent job.

In the analysis of Burns’ ad, Tester’s real stance on the war is explained without partisan rancor, including a note about how the GOP has spun its rhetoric around a newspaper mistake:

Tester has never described his position as “cut and run,” which is a label Republicans are using nationally against Democrats who demand that Bush develop a plan to pull American troops out of Iraq.

Regarding the Iraq war, Tester said in November 2005 that “The time has come (for Bush) to support our troops by laying out a plan to bring them home.”

He repeated that statement at a Democratic primary debate in April this year, saying Bush should “develop a plan and get out and redeploy the troops as soon as possible.” The Great Falls Tribune paraphrased this statement as Tester saying he favors getting U.S. troops out of Iraq “immediately” which has been used by Republicans to say Tester supports “cutting and running.” The Tribune and Associated Press on Sept. 14 clarified that he did not say withdraw “immediately.”

Since July, press reports have quoted Tester as saying he wasn’t “inclined toward a timetable,” but wouldn’t “support a president who isn’t willing to develop a plan to get the troops out”; that he would like U.S. troops to “get out as soon as possible”; and that it’s important to “start a plan that revolves around training the Iraqis as soon as possible so they can take military control of their own country. That has been my take from the get-go.”

The Burns campaign has characterized Tester’s positions as “timeline, then immediate withdrawal, then no timeline, then immediate withdraw and now he’s for training the troops to take over.”

Of course, reading Tester’s various statements, it’s obvious to see that they’re not incongruous. Not being for a “timetable” for troop withdrawal isn’t inconsistent with getting them out “as soon as possible.” And of course, training Iraqis to take over US duties is a very smart precondition to withdrawal. Once you read Tester’s statements, Burns’ response is shown to be disingenuous.

Burns’ war stance is summed up neatly and accurately thusly:

Burns voted for and backs the Patriot Act, saying Americans have lost “no liberties” under it. The Patriot Act expands the power of the government to investigate suspected terrorist activity, and has been criticized by civil libertarians for overstepping privacy rights of Americans.

He also has strongly supported President Bush on the war.

The ad watch on the DSCC’s commercial is also decent. Here’s what it says about the ad’s attack on contributions to Burns from big oil:

The ad actually understates the money Burns has received from oil and gas interests during his 18-year Senate career and accurately states his votes in 2005 and 2006 on energy price-gouging and oil-and-gas tax breaks.

Get it? The DSCC was going easy on Burns.

My one issue with the analysis is that, for some reason, the article saw fit to drag Senator Max Baucus into the argument:

But it doesn’t mention that U.S. Sen. Max Baucus, Montana’s Democratic senator, also voted for some of the same oil-and-gas tax breaks last year, contained in the 2005 energy bill. Burns and Baucus supported the bill, which includes tax breaks for alternative energy, such as tax credit crucial to wind-power development. However, a majority of the $14.6 billion in tax incentives went to traditional energy sources like oil and gas, coal and nuclear power.

Um…what does this prove, other than Baucus has been feeding at the same troughs as Conrad Burns?

Attention Billings Gazette, attention Montana: JON TESTER IS NOT MAX BAUCUS.

That’s right, Jon Tester is running against Conrad Burns this election. Max Baucus is due for re-election in 2008. At that time, I give you free license to mention his ties to big oil and other assorted lobbyists. Right now, his character is not relevant.

Finally, the article analyzes the ad’s claims on Tester’s record:

The ad’s statement on Tester accurately refers to his sponsorship of a 2005 bill that requires Montana utilities to provide a minimum amount of electricity generated by alternative-energy sources. Legislative Republicans led a successful effort to amend the bill and insert price controls, so the alternative energy would not be required regardless of cost. The bill was approved and signed into law.

There you go. This is the exact kind of analysis that Montana newspapers should be supplying their readers. Partisan rhetoric is hard to parse for neutral observers, especially for non-political-junkies. It’s the newspapers’ job to correct fallacies and clarify the candidates’ records. Let the readers decide based on good information.

Nice job, Ms. Florio and Mssers. Dennison and Johnson.

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