“I know you are but what am I”: Going after the person, not the policy, in politics

Can’t say I’m surprised by this mornings reporting from David Corn over at Mother Jones regarding leaked audio from an opposition research meeting held by Senator Mitch McConnell:

On February 2, Mitch McConnell, the Republican leader in the US Senate, opened up his 2014 reelection campaign headquarters in Louisville, Kentucky, and in front of several dozen supporters vowed to “point out” the weaknesses of any opponent fielded by the Democrats. “They want to fight? We’re ready,” he declared. McConnell was serious: Later that day, he was huddling with aides in a private meeting to discuss how to attack his possible Democratic foes, including actor/activist Ashley Judd, who was then contemplating challenging the minority leader. During this strategy session—a recording of which was obtained by Mother Jones—McConnell and his aides considered assaulting Judd for her past struggles with depression and for her religious views.

I was very fortunate in my years of working in campaigns that I never had a meeting that someone’s battles with depression or religion were discussed as possible political weapons. The people I worked with weren’t afraid of attacking opponents, but it was always on substantial policy issues or votes, something I support and did on many occasions.

Would Senator McConnell be dumb enough to use most of this material himself? I doubt it, most good political operations would unload this personal stuff to an outside group or individual to use in an attack campaign.

A distinction is important here between so-called “negative” and personal attacks. “Negative attack” is a catch-all term the media likes to use to describe any ad, email or mail piece which calls out a politician for a particular idea, policy or vote. That type of attack isn’t negative, it’s absolutely necessary. If you can’t call out someone for their policy proposals or votes, you don’t really have an election, simply a beauty contest, the best hair and makeup wins.

My problem with many negative ads is how they’re created to mislead voters about someone’s actual position, taking words out of context for example. This doesn’t shine a light on how people think differently or would serve people better, it only creates an illusion to distract voters from real issues. I can’t say this is a tactic only one party uses but I would argue that Republicans are far more comfortable and effective doing it.

At the same time I don’t believe negative ads are the downfall of our republic, since they have been a part of American politics since before the revolution. Sharon Begley offered this history lesson in Newsweek in 2008:

Please. For true connoisseurs, such attacks are to negative campaigning what boxed wine is to a 1961 Château Lafite: a weak imitation of the real thing, a tease that makes one yearn for the vintages of yore. We’re thinking here of vintages such as 1800 when, during the Thomas Jefferson-John Adams presidential race, the Connecticut Courant wrote that if Jefferson won, “murder, robbery, rape, adultery and incest will be openly taught and practiced, the air will be rent with the cries of the distressed, the soil will be soaked with blood, and the nation black with crimes.” New Englanders, Advertising Age noted in an editorial last April praising negative campaign ads, “reportedly hid their Bibles for fear that the infidel president would declare them illegal.” Or vintages such as 1828, when supporters of presidential candidate and incumbent John Quincy Adams called opponent Andrew Jackson a cannibal and a murderer. The previously married Mrs. Jackson got off easy; Adams’s supporters merely accused her of being a whore.

The fine tradition of negativity and attacks goes back to the nation’s founding document. By the count of political scientist John G. Geer of Vanderbilt University, 70 percent of the statements in the Declaration of Independence are not uplifting promises of more-just and democratic governance, but attacks on England and George III (“He has obstructed the Administration of Justice,” “He has dissolved Representative Houses” and, of course, “He has plundered our seas, ravaged our Coasts, burnt our towns, and destroyed the lives of our people”). These criticisms “provided the basis for thinking about abuses of power and the centrality of certain basic human rights,” Geer writes in his 2006 book “In Defense of Negativity: Attack Ads in Presidential Campaigns.” “Without such negativity, the argument for establishing a new nation that ‘derived its just powers from the consent of the govern[ed]’ would not have been possible.”

If we really want to bolster our democracy for the future we should concentrate on freeing elected officials from having to raise money and give their staffs the ability to craft legislation without having to rely on and be bombarded by lobbyists.


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