Selling the Supreme Court

By Janet Williams

You have probably seen the television ads — a man on a journey from poor, hard-working youth to successful adult at the top of his professional. He’s a man of integrity, standing up for what’s right. He’s a family man with solid American values.

Yes, who could possibly not want to see Neil Gorsuch elevated to the highest court in the land after watching that story played out in a quick clip in a television ad?

Call it The Selling of the Supremes 2017.

Where is Joe McGinnis when you need him? McGinnis was the 20-something journalist who got unprecedented inside access to the campaign of Richard Nixon nearly half a century ago. His blockbuster book, The Selling of the President 1968, provided up close and personal details about how Nixon’s ad men reshaped the unlikable politician into a much warmer and more humane figure.

We know how that worked out.

That book was groundbreaking, not because the president was packaged like a six-pack of beer but because it pulled back the curtain on what was already happening behind the scenes of political campaigns. As McGinnis — who died in 2014 — notes in the book, advertising agencies had been at work packaging and selling presidential candidates as early as Dwight Eisenhower.

What’s happening with Gorsuch, an appellate judge from Colorado, and the Supreme Court vacancy isn’t particularly unusual, either. It’s one more example of how serious issues are reduced to their lowest common denominators in a never-ending cycle of political advertisements.

The differences lie in who are the real targets and where the money for these ads come from. With Bud, the target is you, the consumer, but it’s not so clear when you see the Gorsuch ads.

As for the money, when you see that Budweiser ad you can be sure that the beer company is the one paying for it. And you have a good idea of their agenda even if you don’t know that the name behind Bud is the Belgian conglomerate Anheuser-Busch InBev.

They want you to drink beer, lots of it and their brand.

Not so with the money and voices behind the pro- and anti-Gorsuch campaigns.

The People for the American Way, the organization founded by television producer Norman Lear in the Reagan era, is running anti-Gorsuch ads in some states with vulnerable Senate Democrats. Those ads show a man in a judicial robe ripping up a copy of the Constitution with the clear message that this is a guy who will stomp all over your rights. PFAW isn’t saying how much they are spending on these commercials.

On the other side, an organization called the Judicial Crisis Network has been running pro-Gorsuch ads here in Indiana and the real target is U.S. Sen. Joe Donnelly, the Democrat who won the seat in 2012.

We’re supposed to get fired up and let Donnelly know that Gorsuch is the kind of right-thinking American we want on the Supreme Court. But who funds the Judicial Crisis Network, which has pledged $10 million to help get Gorsuch on the bench?

Because neither PFAW nor the Judicial Crisis Network has to disclose its donors, we end up with very little information about the real money behind these ad campaigns. We do get some information from the 990 tax forms that all tax-exempt groups file with the IRS. In 2014, the latest year for which data is available, a Washington D.C. organization called the Wellspring Committee contributed $6.7 million to the Judicial Crisis Network.

Where did Wellspring’s money come from? Again, they don’t say.

What average voter has the wherewithal to dig through layers of IRS documents to figure out where the money comes from?

Whether Neil Gorsuch is the right person for the high court isn’t the issue here. It’s how what should be an intelligent debate about whether he is the most qualified person to assume the mantle of Supreme Court justice has been reduced to a few simple clichéd television sound bites.

With millions of dollars whose ultimate sources are well hidden, maybe we are being sold a bill of goods. But then again, who knows?

Janet Williams is editor of TheStatehouseFile.com, a news website powered by Franklin College journalism students. Send comments to letters@dailyjournal.net