Last week, Randall Terry announced that he will run in in the Democratic primaries against president Obama in order to be able to take advantage of the special status of candidates for federal office. He wants to place grotesque antiabortion ads on TV, notably during the Superbowl. The announcement did not get much national news coverage, CNN for example. And it may have been sound news judgment to take a wait and see view before giving a platform to a professional far-right provocateur.
Indeed, there is little visible evidence of a campaign taking shape and little evidence of support. The Terry for President Facebook page at this writing has only 17 supporters. But it could be that there is more going on than meets they eye or even that traditional metrics do not apply; at least not yet. He says that next month he plans to travel to New York, Iowa, New Hampshire, Florida and North Carolina.
And that is where this might get interesting.
Catholic Online a conservative news outlet, gave the most detailed report on Terry's announcement, and picked-up on what may be its most significant dimension:
In talking about his platform that affirms life, marriage between a man and a woman only and human freedom, he indicated that he will run an "unashamedly theocentric campaign. The Constitution of the United States of America is a phenomenal document," he stated. "But it is not the primary document that was given to the human race to govern themselves. That would be the Ten Commandments and the Sermon On The Mount."
The terminology is important here. Theocentric means a culture that is focused on God. This was an interesting, if euphemistic choice of words. He could have used theonomic -- a word that is popular in his circles -- which means a society that is governed by God's laws, (since he invoked the Ten Commandments). But could also have used theocratic, which is a government that is run by God's agents. Contemporary theocrats like to hide behind the terms theonomic and theocentric, because most Americans take the word theocratic as pejorative. While these terms have legitimate academic distinctions, as a practical matter, there is very little difference when political theorists, operatives and candidates use them.
Terry recently made a video in which he appealed for people to contact him if they would like to be a candidate for office -- especially in the top 25 media markets -- in order to run antiabortion ads on TV. (To that end, Terry joined with unsuccessful GOP candidate for Congressional Delegate from Washington, DC Missy Smith and former perennial GOP presidential contender Alan Keyes held a candidate training seminar on January 2nd. Keyes bolted the GOP in 2008 in an unsuccessful effort to gain the the presidential nomination of the Constitution Party.)
Terry's model is Smith's recent campaign as the GOP candidate for nonvoting Delegate from the District of Columbia against incumbent Eleanor Holmes Norton. Terry served as Smith's campaign manager and wrote and produced the ads that aired hundreds of times in the DC media market, including on such shows as Seinfeld, Saturday Night Live, and Everybody Hates Chris.
Federal communications law requires local stations to carry any and all ads by qualified federal candidates, to make sure no broadcaster has the power to oppose or censor any candidates by limiting their access to the airwaves. According to the Federal Communications Commission, broadcasters can only reject a federal candidate's ad if it contains a copyright infringement, or is defamatory.
"Legitimate candidate? They've gotta run the ad," said Howard Kurtz, host of CNN's "Reliable Sources."
Evan Tracey, a consultant for CNN on campaign advertising, said if it was an interest group that tried to air an ad like this, "the stations could say, 'No, too hot to handle, we don't want to handle it.' But because it's a federal candidate -- that's the key here -- this ad has to run."
While Terry and Smith's focus is certainly abortion, their purpose appears to be to build a theocratic movement over the next few election cycles that transcends party and defies stereotype. Smith ran as a Republican and Terry is running as a Democrat. Like any innovative effort, it is possible that this effort will not succeed. But let's say that Terry and a handful of candidates manage to get on the ballot and spend a few million dollars worth of incendiary antiabortion ads. The likely result will be local and national media attention and more profound polarization of the abortion debate. That's certainly how Smith and Terry see it.
All this could turn out to be very significant, or maybe it will fizzle. But we really can't assume anything. We sometimes too readily dismiss people like Terry as too extreme to take seriously, or we get outraged about his more outrageous statements (he has plenty of them; its a specialty.) So let's step back a bit to consider what his particular activism might mean.
What if Missy Smith's campaign was not an anomaly and Terry's effort turns out not to be a nonstarter, and gains traction? What if a dozen candidates turn up who can run in legitimate party primaries and raise the funds to place the ads?
Given that broadcasters are required to run ads for federal candidates and without editorial interference, the content could just as easily be advertising for Ex-Lax; a PR message from BP, or the memoirs George W. Bush. In the age of Citizens United, all you need is enough money to flood the zone. From this distance, it looks to me like a win win for the theocrats. It's a win if they air the ads and drive public debate; and its a win if the legitimacy of elections and government is eroded by forcing questions of the legitimacy of candidates or editorial decisions into litigation.
I don't know what the answer is, but I do know that ignoring this is not an option. And it will be interesting to hear about what happens when Terry and his entourage turn up in the above mentioned states next month.
[Crossposted from Talk to Action]