Monday, July 16, 2012

Unfair Attacks in Political Campaigns

Do you know why politicians use unfair attacks in political campaigns? Why they avoid substantive issues while attempting to distort their opponent's record?

Because it works.

There's debate over whether the Swift Boat attack ads cost John Kerry the election, but there's little question but that those attacks, coupled with Kerry's delay in responding, seemingly arising from his misplaced trust that the media would dismiss the attacks as absurd, seriously harmed his public image.

The attacks on Kerry gave birth to the term, "swiftboating", the use of untrue allegations to attack your opponent's character and record. There was actually nothing new there, and if you look at some of the campaign treachery attributed to the kings of dirty politics such as Karl Rove, you will find lesser-known and less-remembered attacks that were as bad or worse.

But we're really talking about a matter of degree. It's a rare campaign where character is not an issue, with the individual candidates attempting to advance themselves as people of virtue, boasting of impeccable credentials, while suggesting at best that their opponent is less qualified.

Sometimes ignoring the attack works. Either the attack strikes the wrong note with the voters such that they don't care, or the accusation is "old news" by the time an election rolls around. G.W. Bush's history in the National Guard stands as an example. Do I know to what degree the allegations about string-pulling to get him in, his lackadaisical performance, or the circumstances of his discharge are true? No. I can suspect what happened based upon Bush's choice to remain silent and to prevent disclosure of his records, but I can't know. It didn't matter, because people weren't voting for Bush based upon his military record and largely accepted that pulling strings to get out of military service in Vietnam was not a big deal.

In the past, when discussing dirty politics, I've used the analogy of throwing spaghetti - you play around until you find something that sticks, something that resonates, and run with it. And yes, in today's politics that means identifying your opponent's strengths and poking and prodding them until you find a point of weakness, then pushing as hard as you can. The most fair, most honest attacks can fall flat. And unfair, dishonest attacks - swiftboating - can prove highly effective.

Right now we're seeing the Obama campaign push hard on Romney's record with Bain Capital, something Romney has made the cornerstone of his qualification to be President. A few years ago he had Romenycare and Bain, but Romney has been on a multi-year sprint away from his record as Governor of Massachusetts. Now it's just Bain. Romney is trying to push back, but so far his efforts have not been successful. The current attacks are resonating both with voters and with pundits who, even if they publicly deplore the attacks, can't seem to stop talking about them.

Are the attacks fair? I personally do think it's reasonable to argue that if you're characterizing yourself as President, CEO, and sole shareholder of a company, even if you're on a "leave of absence" you need to accept responsibility for what your company does. Romney is more than happy to claim credit for anything positive that is associated with Bain, not just for the period of his employment but through the present. But whenever you shine the light on the dark side of his company, he was "on a leave of absence" or "retired". Particularly given his past statements suggesting post-"retirement" involvement with Bain and its acquisitions, it appears that he can no longer have it both ways.

At the same time, I suspect that if Romney were to disclose his tax records, they would show that some of the criticisms are unfair or exaggerated. But I suspect that they would also paint a picture of Romney - of his wealth, of the trickery he uses to avoid taxes, of the various games ultra-rich people play - would do more harm to his image than attempting to weather the current round of attacks. I have heard it suggested that Romney's camp believes the cure would be worse than the disease - that to release his tax returns would paint a picture of a privileged elitist, documenting and potentiall taking massive tax deductions - well beyond what most families earn in a year - for just one of his many horses.

I prefer clean, above-board campaigns... I'm just not sure where to find one. So in this world I have to settle for being critical of dishonest campaigns and of the media's failure to try to ferret out the truth, while also accepting that being the focus of some dirty tricks is part of our process. I don't think it's every appropriate to exploit voter racism with false innuendo about a candidate or his family, or that a campaign can justify such tactics as falsely implying that a candidate who does charitable or humanitarian work with children is a pedophile. When something like that happens, I would like to see the media ferret out the truth and, should it be a political opponent, hold that person's feet to the fire. In the context of President Obama, it's an appalling failure of the mainstream media that somebody could be a "birther" and be taken seriously as a political candidate or commentator.

I would have been more sympathetic to John Kerry had he pushed back on the Swift Boat lies before they gained traction, but I do sympathize with the fact that once they gained traction the truth no longer mattered. Yes, the media does bear some responsibility, not only for failing to investigate or report known facts, but also for covering and perhaps giggling along with such "jokes" as the "purple heart" bandages. Of caring more about the horse race than the truth, of confusing "he said, she said" coverage with balance.

I admit that I'm uncomfortable with the tactic of implying something about your opponent that you suspect is not true "because it works", but I'm more sympathetic when it's the sort of innuendo I've already described than when it's something the candidate has the power to refute. I suspect that G.W.'s non-disclosure of his National Guard records was due to their revealing embarrassing details of privilege and string-pulling, with the gradual subsequent disclosures being "old news". Things did reach the point where a lot of records were released but, you know, aw, shucks.

And yes, I'll be a lot more sympathetic to your position if you're squeaky clean. If you're truly trying to rise above the fray, run a clean campaign, focus on the issues. If you're going to take potshots at your opponent, directly or through proxies, wink at claims and attacks you know are unfair or untrue, refuse to refute or stand against scurrilous attacks, don't cry to me when your opponent takes off the gloves. But guys, gloves or no, do try to keep it above the belt.

Update: I didn't have to wait very long for an illustration. If you want to complain, directly and through your proxies, that your opponent is being unfair to you, I will not weep for you if your very next move (consistent with any number of your prior moves) is to tell bald-faced lies about your opponent's on-the-record statements.

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