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Swing and miss

Is this the best Republicans can do in attacking Walsh?

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If you have watched a YouTube video lately—I haven't, since I understand the Bible to forbid cats from playing musical instruments—you have probably seen the National Republican Senatorial Committee's ad "Pulling the Strings." The 30-second spot depicts Montana's newly appointed senator, John Walsh, as a literal puppet of Harry Reid and Barack Obama.

"Harry Reid and Barack Obama are pulling the strings in Montana," the voice-over says, "setting up the next act for the hand-picked candidate John Walsh. Obama and Reid are going around Montanans, clearing the stage for Walsh to be appointed to the Senate."

It's an odd piece of election-season rhetoric for several reasons. First of all, Walsh was appointed by Gov. Steve Bullock, not Obama. Surely Obama and Reid had some say in his selection, but to criticize the man appointed to replace a Democratic senator made ambassador by a Democratic president for being a Democrat is like criticizing the Honda dealer for trying to put you in a Civic. That's just how the game is played.

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It's particularly strange that the NRSC chose Walsh's party connection to Obama as the central message of its ad, because there are plenty of other ways to attack the new senator from Montana. In some ways, Walsh is a mudslinger's dream.

Before he was chosen to replace Max Baucus, Walsh had no experience in legislative politics at the state or federal level. He served as lieutenant governor for just more than a year. Before Bullock made him a member of the world's greatest deliberative body, Walsh spent pretty much his entire adult life in the Montana Army National Guard, and his record there was not stellar. If Walsh is a puppet, then the president has been operating him with his off hand.

In 2010, a report of the Army Inspector General concluded that Walsh had used his position as adjutant general for private gain by pressuring his subordinates to join the National Guard Association of the United States, a congressional lobbying organization. According to the Inspector General, Walsh was trying to increase NGAUS membership to bolster his candidacy for vice president of the group.

As ethical scandals go, that's not very exciting, and Walsh maintains that he and the IG simply disagreed in their interpretation of the rules. Still, it's a much stickier hunk of mud than the observation that he belongs to the same party as the president.

So, too, was the 2011 federal audit that found the Montana Department of Military Affairs was carelessly managing its relationships with government contractors. The department did not have a system in place to track the status of contracts; it couldn't even say how many contractors it had engaged. Brigadier General Walsh was at the center of that fiasco, but "Pulling the Strings" only briefly mentions it amid a 10-second series of decontextualized headlines.

The ad invests most of its 30 seconds in the puppet metaphor, cynically criticizing the very act of appointing a replacement senator. Bullock picks a career guardsman with a spotty record and no legislative experience, and the best the NRSC can come up with is that "Obama and Reid are going around Montanans" by not holding a special election nine months before the regular one.

Frankly, I thought our negative politics were better than that. As a Senate appointment, Walsh has many flaws, but getting appointed is not one of them. That the ad would make so much of his scandalous membership in the same political party as the people who picked him tells us something about the NRSC.

Specifically, their production department is not above half-assing a spot for a regional market they don't know much about. Anyone familiar with Montana politics could put together a substantive attack ad about Walsh, but apparently no such person sits on the Republicans' Hill committee. It seems the NRSC saw Montana's red complexion and decided that merely connecting Walsh to Obama would make us kick our smell-hounds and spit tobacco at the screen.

Their hackwork also suggests how much our fetid national discourse has swamped state and local politics. The Montana race for U.S. Senate is interesting right now, and Walsh is a vexed appointment who offers plenty of opportunities for argument—even if that argument must take the form of attack ads. But the NRSC's attack ad doesn't invite us to consider anything interesting. It asks us to forget about state issues so we can join in a federal-level conflict between the parties.

Walsh's appointment isn't the next act in the epic struggle between Obama and the Republican Party; it's a decision that determines how our interests will be represented at the national level. Calling him a puppet of Obama cheapens our stake in our own politics. Sen. Walsh matters, but he matters a lot more to the people of Montana than he does to the president.

Dan Brooks writes about politics, culture and lying at combatblog.net. His column appears every other week in the Independent.

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