Decency. Integrity. Non-partisan. We heard those words over and over again in a week of tributes to former President Gerald Ford. They got me thinking back to that time in the ’70s. Not the protests and the rancor or even the bad hair and clothes. But the desire for change that swept America and the decency of two men who brought it to us.
There was one message out of the 1974 midterm elections, and it was that America wanted change. We wanted business to be done differently in Washington. To a great degree it seemed that was happening. The Imperial Presidency gave way to an approachable, more human White House. The Congress seemed to try hard to do things differently, to reform itself in major ways and to work together for the benefit of the people, not the special interests.
Then came the 1976 election. Jimmy Carter ran on a continuation of that reform agenda. He ran against a man very much like himself: a decent man with the capacity to forgive — a character trait that probably cost Gerald Ford reelection by a razor-thin margin.
Arguably, it was also the last civil presidential campaign run in modern America. There were no television commercials attacking the president for cutting a deal with his predecessor to gain the White House — even though millions of Americans would have believed that charge. There were no television commercials mocking the Southern Baptist for lusting in the pages of Playboy. In a modern campaign the airwaves would have been filled with such spots, run by a 527 or whatever comparable group could have been cobbled together 30 years ago. At the very least the candidates would have been tossing such charges around on the stump. But that was a civil campaign, and it is the last one I can recall.
In 1978, back when I still did candidate campaigns, I ran my first truly harsh negative commercial. Two years later I discovered, along with a lot of other media producers, a crude electronic box called the DVE that allowed you to manipulate television images. One neat thing the DVE did was let you flip an image on screen. You could take a profile shot of a candidate looking one way and flip it so he (in those days it was almost always he) was suddenly looking the other way. Repeat the process several times and you had a “flip-flopper” for an opponent. By the next election cycle there was a flip-flopper in every state and practically every congressional district in the country.
Why did campaigns so suddenly and increasingly become nasty? As a recovering candidate media consultant I’d suggest that my profession is, in large part, responsible. I remember dozens of strategy sessions in which candidates argued they didn’t want “to go negative.” The consultants all nodded with sage compassion and said, “But it works.” And for years we’ve had evidence to prove that is true. The media has also played a role in this loss of civility. Attacks make good copy and with huge news holes to fill on cable and now the Internet a good attack story is easy to report or produce. And candidates, both in their role as campaigners and increasingly in their official capacities, have bought into attack politics.
Some six months ago I wrote here about fascinating research done by Democrat Peter Hart and Republican Bill McInturff finding that Americans were tired of partisanship. No more than 35 percent of voters gave favorable marks to either political party. Midterm election exit polls found that the “tone” in Washington was nearly as powerful as Iraq in driving voter behavior. For a few weeks after the election it seemed the victorious Democrats had gotten that message. Now I’m not so sure. Democratic leaders, particularly in the House, seem determined to roll over Republicans in the first 100 days of the new Congress with a take-no-prisoners attitude.
That is a somewhat risky strategy. It may deliver the reforms Democrats promised, but it may also send Americans a message that nothing has changed.
Was all the yearning we heard for the decency and comity of the Gerald Ford era nothing more than empty words? It may have been mostly for show here inside the Beltway, but America sincerely yearns for those days of a more civil government. Democrats would do well to remember that message the next two years.
Goddard is a founding partner of political consultants Goddard Claussen Strategic Advocacy.