An extraordinary thing happened in Tennessee's midterms

An extraordinary thing happened in Tennessee's midterms
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The historic midterm elections finally are history, though vote counts are still being verified in some races. Most people with whom I talked couldn’t wait for the election to be over. One of the main reasons voters are so put off by our electoral process is the negative, almost slanderous, ad campaigns that have come to define American politics. Whether the ads are created by political action committees or by the candidates themselves, they’re typically attack, attack, attack — and often filled with fear-mongering, hate, half-truths, intentional misrepresentations and occasionally, downright lies.

There is considerable evidence that negative ads work; indeed, they would not be so popular if that weren’t the case. According to a study by the Wesleyan Media Project, released before the election, the number of attack ads had increased from 450,000 in 2010 to 569,000 this year. And both parties’ congressional campaign committees spend millions of dollars on negative ads.

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In fairness, not all attack ads are inappropriate. If a candidate is a crook, has engaged in sexual misconduct or other serious ethical issues, the voters are entitled to know such facts. And it is fair game for the opposing candidate to so inform the voters.  

But attack ads that smack of fear-mongering, or are not based in demonstrable wrongdoings, distract voters from the issues we should be debating — federal debt, education, infrastructure improvements and how to pay for them, health care, climate change and the like. These are the issues that greatly affect our lives and will affect the lives of our children, and their children.  Yet, most of the time, candidates throw out the issues in favor of playing to people’s base fears. That certainly is not what our Founding Fathers intended.

But one race in my home state of Tennessee was extraordinary. It was different. The candidates for governor demonstrated that a campaign doesn’t have to include negative ads. Very much to their credit, Democrat Karl Dean and Republican Bill Lee, now the governor-elect, steered clear of the fear-mongering, negativity and half-truths that dominated our airwaves.

Dean ran a series of ads highlighting his position on issues such as Medicaid expansion, explaining why he believes what he does and stating that his opponent does not believe in Medicaid expansion. He did not call his opponent names, suggest that his opponent is a bad or ill-intentioned person, or imply that the world would end if Lee was elected. Instead, Dean’s ads were civil, informative and sincere.

In a recent television ad, Lee went even further. He opened his ad by noting that the differences between him and his opponent are clear. But then he said something I have rarely heard in recent American politics: “My opponent is a good man, a public servant,” he said. This was truly extraordinary: one candidate paying another a compliment, before the election.

To be sure, Lee led in the polls and that arguably gave him breathing room that he otherwise might not have had to carry on a positive campaign. But both gubernatorial candidates behaved in a way that would make anyone proud of our democracy. By rejecting the commonplace negativity and half-truths that are the hallmark of so many campaigns, these two candidates put civic duty to the forefront while trying to win the race.  

It’s no surprise that Lee won in this deeply red state. But throughout his campaign, he had demonstrated himself to be a respectful, civil person. As a result, we can anticipate that support for our  governor-elect will be broader than it might have been had the candidates engaged in typical divisive half-truths and misrepresentations. Voters who supported Dean will not have a sense that “the sky is falling” because the other candidate was elected.  

Yes, in Tennessee’s 2018 race for the governor’s mansion, the candidates demonstrated that our politics do not have to be about divisiveness and fear-mongering; rather, they can highlight the issues affecting Americans. In the end, the big winners are the people of Tennessee and our political system.    

Still, one question remains: If a positive state-level campaign worked so well in Tennessee, why can’t politicians everywhere put integrity, character and civic responsibility ahead of their own political means?  

Gary A. Garfield is the retired chairman, president and CEO of Bridgestone Americas Inc. He practiced law for 29 years and was the general counsel and chief compliance officer before leading the company.