It began in mid-July, when Oregon's (and the West Coast's) only Republican senator began running ads accusing the Democrat Merkley, the speaker of the Oregon House, of spending $2 million on new furniture and carpeting for legislative offices.
The ads were a little misleading in a couple of respects. For one thing, Merkley didn't approve the outlay all by himself - it was authorized by a bipartisan legislative panel. And if you weren't paying close attention, the ad could give you the idea that the whole $2 million was spent on Merkley's office.
All the same, the ad appears to have worked.
Before he fired the first shot in the Furniture War, Smith's ads had concentrated on downplaying his Republicanism and playing up his bipartisanship. That strategy wasn't too effective - in fact, a Rasmussen poll in early July actually showed Merkley a little bit ahead of Smith. After the first furniture ad, things turned around.
The Merkley troops weren't going to just sit there and take it. They fired back with an ad challenging Smith's fiscal responsibility, citing "$18 billion in tax breaks for big oil" and attempting to tie Smith to the $9 trillion national debt. That's an over-simplification: The 2005 oil tax cut bill also included incentives for alternative energy and had bipartisan support.
Undaunted, Smith launched a second, even sharper-edged ad on the furniture theme.
"Jeff Merkley attacked the former House speaker [Republican Karen Minnis] for spending thousands redecorating," the ad says. Merkley said it wasted our tax dollars. But when Merkley became speaker - you guessed it, he spent millions. Flat-screen TVs. $4,000 desks. $6,700 for matching hutch, credenza and wardrobe.
But Smith is the real hypocrite, the Democrats promptly charged, because his state director, Kerry Tymchuk, was a member of a public commission that approved the Capitol renovations. The Democrats' claim was disingenuous because - as the Smith side quickly pointed out - Tymchuk only signed off on the overall $34 million project, not the extravagant (according to the Republicans, anyway) office furniture and carpet.
There haven't been any new ads from Smith on the furniture theme. Hopefully we've seen the last of them. But way too much time, money and attention already has been frittered away on the Furniture War.
It's not as if the country, and Oregon, don't have anything else to worry about. Just to tick off a few items: the loss of federal timber payments to rural counties, the health care mess, the foreclosure crisis, the credit crunch, crumbling infrastructure, and a war in Iraq that continues to burn money at the rate of $12 billion a month. (That could buy a hell of a lot of credenzas.)
We're hoping Smith and Merkley will get around to debating at least a few of these issues between now and Election Day. In the meantime, we went out and bought another BOOT so we could give one to each of them for trivializing this campaign.