In his first TV ad, Democratic presidential candidate Howard Dean notes, "I approved this message." Rep. Pat Toomey, R-Pa., who's running against incumbent Sen. Arlen Specter in the Republican primary, ends his current spot by saying, "I authorized this message." What's up with these stilted acknowledgements of responsibility?
Get used to variations on the "I approved this" line because it's mandated by Section 311 of the McCain-Feingold campaign-finance reform act. A provision known as the "Stand by Your Ad" amendment requires that all campaign ads on television include "a statement that identifies the candidate and states that the candidate has approved the communication." The candidate can simply make that statement directly to the camera, or the candidate's voice-over can accompany a "clearly identifiable" snapshot or video image. In addition, the approval must also appear in writing on-screen for at least four seconds, "with a reasonable degree of color contrast between the background and the printed statement."
"Stand by Your Ad" does not include specific language on how those approvals must be phrased, so voters will surely see lots of different ways of meeting the standard. Dean, for example, tries to artfully weave the acknowledgement into his patter: "It's time for Democrats to be Democrats again. That's why I'm running for president. That's why I approved this message." Toomey, meanwhile, simply tacks the statement onto the end of his ad, so it resembles those "Paid for by …" acknowledgments that have been around for years.
The amendment is intended to discourage negative ads by making it impossible for candidates to conceal their involvement in slinging mud. Third-party ads in support of a candidate—say, by a political action committee not directly affiliated with the campaign—must end with this exact statement "in a clearly spoken manner": "(Insert name) is responsible for the content of this advertising." That should give candidates some plausible deniability in case a political ally levies a controversial attack.
"Stand by Your Ad" was patterned after a virtually identical North Carolina law, enacted prior to the 2000 campaign season. Though several portions of McCain-Feingold are currently being contested before the Supreme Court, "Stand by Your Ad" is not among the hot-button issues, having previously been upheld by a federal court.