Let these people draft the pledge

Let’s all agree that neither Sen. Kelly Ayotte nor Gov. Maggie Hassan has squeaky-clean hands when it comes to taking campaign cash. Their palms have been greased by so many campaign contributions that you’d think both worked at Jiffy Lube.

Each is a product of the very campaign system that Sen. Bernie Sanders railed against so successfully while campaigning in New Hampshire during the past several months. He called it "corrupt," and he’s right. The people, corporations and unions that give "yuge" sums of money to candidates expect something in return – and too often they get it, whether it’s access or votes.

So neither candidate can claim the high ground when it comes to campaign finance as they square off in the November election for the Senate seat currently held by Ayotte.

But they don’t have to subject New Hampshire voters to a trip to the gutter, either, and a proposal floated by Ayotte would go a long way toward avoiding that ugliness.

It’s called the "People’s Pledge," and Ayotte this week asked Hassan to sign on.

Simply put, it’s a commitment on the part of the candidates designed to limit the influence of outside political ads in a campaign. When candidates sign the pledge, they agree to donate money to a charity of their opponent’s choice if outside groups run attack ads – as much as 50 percent of the cost of the ad.

It was an idea that first surfaced in the Massachusetts U.S. Senate race between Scott Brown and Elizabeth Warren in 2012, and it worked.

Sen. Jeanne Shaheen asked Brown to sign the People’s Pledge in the 2014 Senate race in New Hampshire. Brown refused, and she beat him anyway.

Writing at the time, Shaheen noted that "Common Cause, an independent group aimed at protecting voter rights, examined the impact of the People’s Pledge and found it reduced outside spending, so-called ‘dark’ or completely undisclosed money, and negative advertising, and increased public disclosure of contributors and the influence of smaller donors."

Nothing not to like about that – unless, perhaps, you’re Hassan.

The Hassan campaign’s initial response to Ayotte’s suggestion that both candidates sign the People’s Pledge was to point out that outside groups have already spent money attacking her.

That was the same excuse Scott Brown used to reject the pledge in 2014 and a clear early sign that Hassan wanted nothing to do with the pledge.

Except she had to appear to embrace it, so she pulled a page out of the Washington politicians’ playbook: She signed her own pledge, but loaded it with a poison pill she knew Ayotte would never accept – a cap on total spending. In doing so, Hassan used the perfect to kill the good.

Ayotte’s motives, meanwhile, may not look as pure up close as they appear from a distance. An hour after Ayotte’s campaign sent the proposal to Hassan’s campaign manager, news of Ayotte’s challenge showed up on WMUR, which had been given the story by the Ayotte camp.

But putting all that aside, getting the two campaigns to agree on the pledge would be in the best interests of New Hampshire residents, for at least two reasons.

First, the pledge is an effective means of filtering out the noise from outside interest groups. By limiting their influence, it puts the focus on the candidates themselves, where it should be.

Second, it’s the right – even humane – thing to do for the people of New Hampshire.

Look, voters understand there’s an election coming up and they won’t be able to avoid political advertising, including some negative stuff. It comes with the territory. But limiting advertising to the campaigns themselves will spare New Hampshire viewers the indignity of having to suffer through months of no-account garbage ads like the kind that dominated the airwaves during the Shaheen-Brown campaign.

So we have a suggestion to break the stalemate: Since the two sides can’t agree among themselves, they should let a respected, mutually agreeable third party draft an agreement using the Warren-Brown agreement as a framework. Our suggestions would be Dan Weeks – the New Hampshire head of Open Democracy – former state Sen. Jim Rubens, or both. Each is smart, fair-minded and committed to campaign-finance integrity.

Let them work out an agreement that fits New Hampshire and bring it to Hassan and Ayotte to sign.

Then we’d find out which candidate is serious about doing the right thing by the people of the state.