Halsey Frank: Double standard doublecheck

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In April of 2020, the Press Herald republished a Washington Post article which covered President Trump’s distribution of $1,200 relief checks to millions of Americans. It reported that Trump wanted his signature to appear on the checks but that wasn’t possible because the president is not an authorized signer for disbursements from the US Treasury. His name was printed in the memo section instead.

The paper described that decision as “absolutely unprecedented” and “political.” It placed Trump “singularly at the center of,” and “taking full credit for” what the government was doing to help Americans during the coronavirus response. It provided him with a “new form of retail politics,” a “touchable, bread-and-butter symbol to taxpayers right in their mailbox,” “six months before he faces re-election.” It cited critics who argued that Trump was improperly politicizing the IRS and abusing government resources.

In March of this year, the Press Herald began covering Governor Mills’ idea of sending $850 checks to about 858,000 individual Mainers in an effort to help them “in the face of record inflation … caused by Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.” Since then, the paper has published several stories and opinion pieces about the checks, including a letter praising the governor as a hero standing up for the middle class and businesses, a story anticipating the relief checks’ arrival, a report on the website set up to explain them, a story about how a shortage of envelopes might delay their arrival, and a report from Augusta by a Democratic legislator highlighting the accomplishment.

The checks featured the governor’s signature. It was accompanied by a cover letter touting all she had done for Mainers and explaining that the money came from the record surplus that the state recorded. The paper made no mention of the signature, the letter, or the fact that as of March of 2021, Maine had received $1.25 Billion in federal coronavirus relief funds pursuant to the CARES Act and what role that money might have played in the surplus.

The idea that once an election is over, the government should be non-partisan may be a quaint relic of a bygone, or perhaps nonexistent, age. Even so, there still seems to be some sense that it is unfair for an incumbent to use the prerogatives of their office for political advantage in a campaign, that they can do things to curry favor with voters that challengers cannot, and that advantage might violate the freedoms of speech and association and the equal protection of the laws. (It may be a corollary to the ideas that there should be some limit on how far politics should go, that an incumbent shouldn’t use their power to stay in office after they lose an election.)

In general, elected officials are not supposed to use government funds to campaign for reelection, and there are laws that restrict the political activities of government employees in the interests of ensuring that the government operates in a nonpartisan fashion.

However, an incumbent facing reelection has to govern as well as campaign, and things that they do to govern can and should affect their prospects. If they govern poorly, that should hurt their chances of reelection. If they govern well, that should improve those chances. For example, one of the accepted responsibilities of a member of congress is to provide services to their constituents such as help getting the benefit of federal programs. A constituent who receives such service may be understandably grateful. It may dispose them to vote for their congressperson.

There are limits. Vote buying is a crime. But where is the line between acceptable constituent service, a legitimate tax refund, economically sound stimulus or fair relief payment made in an election year, and a gimmick or a corrupt vote-buying scheme? The intent to win reelection? Presumably, most incumbents want to. The hope or expectation that a grateful constituent will express that gratitude with their vote? A shared understanding that the service or benefit is being provided in exchange for a vote? In the abstract, at the extremes, it may be easy to tell. In reality, it’s hard to say.

It’s a political question better answered by voters at the polls on Election Day. That’s where the news media comes in. It should provide voters accurate, even-handed information about the candidates, not lopsided coverage favoring one party and disparaging the other when both are doing the same basic thing.

The obligation to be evenhanded is even greater when the outlet is a virtual monopoly like the Press Herald. Its failure to live up to that standard in ways small and large contributes to the cynicism and resentment that is plaguing our country.

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