When incumbents pretend to be challengers (and hope voters don’t notice)

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Here’s a fascinating new campaign ad out of Michigan, aired by Dan Benishek in the state’s 1st congressional district. Take a look and pay particular attention to how the candidates are identified, because it’s a classic example of a larger 2012 trend.

For those who can’t watch clips online, the spot shows the Republican, identified only as “Dr. Dan Benishek,” attacking his Democratic challenger, identified as “career politician” Gary McDowell. The ad, repeating ridiculously untrue GOP talking points, accuses the Democrat of supporting Medicare cuts (which don’t really exist) and “a massive tax increase on families” (which also doesn’t exist). It concludes by asking voters in Michigan’s 1st to “trust … a doctor,” while showing Benishek in scrubs with a stethoscope around his neck.

If you knew nothing about the district, you’d assume Benishek is a Republican challenger, running against an entrenched incumbent Democrat. But as it turns out, that’s backwards – Benishek is not only a congressional incumbent running for re-election, he’s one of the Republican politicians who voted to eliminate Medicare and replace it with a private voucher scheme.

Asked about the fact that Rep. Benishek neglects to mention these pertinent details in his ad, the lawmaker’s spokesperson said those facts are “irrelevant” to the commercial’s point.

And what about his “career politician” challenger? The congressman is running against a man who served on a county commission and in the state legislature, not in Congress.

The point of an ad like this is obvious: count on public ignorance to make it seem as if (1) the incumbent congressman isn’t actually the incumbent congressman; and (2) the out-of-office challenger is the incumbent congressman.

Of course, Michigan’s Benishek isn’t the only U.S. House member trying to pull a fast one on voters. The New York Times reports today on the larger phenomenon: “Bragging about one’s voting record used to be a staple of political advertising, and a career in Congress was worn as a badge of honor. But this year, many House candidates are deciding not to mention their service here, a blunt acknowledgment of the dim view that a vast majority of voters have of Congress.”

To put it mildly, there’s a lot of this going around in 2012.

In Iowa, thanks to redistricting, Rep. Tom Latham (R) is running against Rep. Leonard Boswell (D), who’s described in Latham attack ads as a “longtime congressman” even though Latham has been in Washington longer than Boswell has.

In New York, Rep. Ann Marie Beurkle (R) is facing former Rep. Dan Maffei (D), who’s described as “DC Dan Maffei,” even though Beurkle is actually serving in DC and Maffei isn’t, and when he was there, Maffei only served one term.

And if these stunts seem familiar, it’s because it’s been going on for much of the year. We talked in August about several Republican incumbents, including Reps. Bill Johnson (R) of Ohio and Frank Guinta (R) of New Hampshire, who are engaged in the same cynical tactics, hoping to fool voters who don’t know the difference.

Look, I realize Congress’ popularity has reached depths unseen since the dawn of modern polling. I also realize there’s a reasonable case to be made this is the worst Congress ever. But wouldn’t it be easier and more honorable for incumbents to say something like, “I’m working hard every day to make Congress better”? Or, “With all the bums in Congress, my common-sense solutions are needed now more than ever”?

When incumbents pretend to be challengers (and hope voters don't notice)

Updated