The coronavirus pandemic is reshaping the ethical considerations of campaigns and advocacy groups in 2020.
Looking ahead, the prospect of a second wave of COVID-19 hitting closer to November raises difficult questions for campaigns and groups. From deciding whether to hold a public event, whether to canvass or how a candidate should communicate online with voters facing health or financial crises, campaigns will have myriad difficult decisions to make when the social distancing orders are lifted.
“Every candidate will handle the ethics of campaigning in the coronavirus crisis differently,” Peter Loge, director of George Washington University’s Project on Ethics in Political Communication, wrote recently. “But every candidate should set ethical boundaries early and stick within those boundaries.”
The considerations about when or how to restart in-person interactions are less immediate than how campaigns should be messaging now in the final days before an FEC quarterly deadline when money is needed to maintain viability for federal campaigns.
During a recent webinar hosted by Loge that C&E participated in, experts agreed that campaigns shouldn’t be shy about fundraising during the pandemic — they just need to calibrate their language to the moment when many donors, particularly small-dollar givers, are possibly dealing with lost work or worse.
“You may not be able to raise the same quantity of money, you may need to raise it differently, but our democracy depends upon competition of ideas, and that requires some degree of what I call responsible conflict, and in order to get that across you have to have the resources to buy the [media] time,” said Dan Glickman, a former congressman and Secretary of Agriculture under President Clinton. “The real issue is the times we’re in require you to use more sensitive language, more respectable language.”
Jeffrey Brand, a philosophy professor at GW’s Trachtenberg School of Public Policy, agreed that campaigns and groups should recalibrate their messaging for the foreseeable future.
“There are really important rhetorical moves that candidates can make to remind us that we are one country and that we need some truth and reconciliation,” he said during the March 26 webinar.
Brand said candidates don’t necessarily need to say, “give your money to immediate relief efforts” instead of donating to a candidate. “We have an obligation to keep the political system going to keep debate going. It’s not free,” he said.
If down-ballot candidates want a model for their messaging, Glickman advised them to look to the governors of states hit hard by COVID-19 cases, including New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo (D). These officeholders are using their “moral force to get ideas across,” said Glickman, who now heads the Aspen Institute Congressional Program.
Despite the risks and uncertainty in the current environment where even presidential campaigns are learning on the fly, he warned candidates not to stick their heads in the sand.
“We can’t use this as an excuse not to campaign, we can’t use this as an excuse not to engage in discussion of major ideas that affect the country,” he said. “It’s just going to have to be a little bit different for a while.”