Going negative

In a perfect world, candidates vying for public office would debate issues and contrasting philosophical approaches to the problems confronting the nation and her citizens. Historians like to point to the Lincoln/Douglas debates as an example of how campaigns ought to be run. But that was then, and this is now.

We live in an impatient and superficial world. Few voters bother to watch what passes for “debates” between candidates, and fewer still have the patience to actually listen to serious men discussing serious issues at length and in detail. 

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Candidates say they want to discuss the issues and avoid the name calling that has given the profession a bad name, but what they really mean is that they’d be happy to focus on their positions that most voters favor. Unfortunately, sometimes politicians discover their positions … or their performance in office … isn’t viewed with the adulation they believe they deserve. When this happens, all bets are off.

 When a candidate discovers his or her approach to governing is in disfavor or when the public has turned on the candidate’s programs and policies, things can get very ugly, very fast. This fall, Democratic candidates are ripping and tearing at their opponents in an attempt to avoid talking about the record and to instead convince voters those conservative candidates are sleazy, crazy, incompetent or simply unqualified for the offices they seek.

A year ago, Democrats actually thought they would be able to focus on issues and on the successes they’d won in Congress. They pumped each other up saying the healthcare bill would prove popular once passed and the economy would recover as a result of their policies.

As time went on, Democrats realized a referendum on their performance would be a disaster and began talking about diverting attention from their shortcomings by making the fall elections a referendum on the individual Republican candidates taking to the field to oppose them. 

Consider the California governor’s race. Attorney General Jerry Brown is living up to the hard-nosed negative reputation he’s earned in campaigns over the last half-century. California is about to go over a cliff. Its schools don’t work, the state is broke, and both workers and employers are fleeing in droves.

The debate in California, however, is about whether Meg Whitman once unknowingly employed an illegal immigrant who presented her with false papers.

Personal attacks are dominating races in Illinois, Florida, Connecticut and elsewhere. Democratic opposition researchers are combing through the backgrounds of their opponents in search of anything they can use. Some, like a particularly obnoxious Florida congressman, are simply making things up and putting them on the air to discredit their opponents.

In Nevada the Majority Leader of the United States Senate and his allies like to assert his opponent is “a wacko.” In Delaware, a state once represented by our current vice president, a world-class fantasist who fabricated his entire life story, the personable but inexperienced GOP candidate is dismissed because of comparatively minor inaccuracies in her resume.

These are just a few examples of what is going on out there right now. Some candidates always cross the line, but this year the Democratic leadership is urging its candidates to “go negative” to salvage what they can in a bad year.

Democrats are arguing that bad as they might be, they are a little less dangerous to the future of the Republic than those who would send them packing. The slogan of the Democratic Party today might be, “We’re not much, but we’re just a little bit better than those other guys.”

Such campaigns have worked when there weren’t real issue differences and personal foibles and mistakes take center stage. But this year, the record of the Democratic Congress is the issue. Californians this year, for example, are probably far more interested in what Jerry Brown will do to save the Golden State than in the immigration status of one of Meg Whitman’s former employees.

This year, the issues matter and those who don’t get that simple fact aren’t likely to survive simply by calling their opponents names.

Keene is chairman of the American Conservative Union and a managing associate with the Carmen Group, a Washington-based governmental consulting firm.