Stateside

Once more into the muck…

The Washington Post reviews some of the most outrageous campaign commercials of the current US election season:

On the brink of what could be a power-shifting election, it is kitchen-sink time: Desperate candidates are throwing everything. While negative campaigning is a tradition in American politics, this year’s version in many races has an eccentric shade, filled with allegations of moral bankruptcy and sexual perversion.

At the same time, the growth of “independent expenditures” by national parties and other groups has allowed candidates to distance themselves from distasteful attacks on their opponents, while blogs and YouTube have provided free distribution networks for eye-catching hatchet jobs.
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The result has been a carnival of ugly, especially on the GOP side, where operatives are trying to counter what polls show is a hostile political environment by casting opponents as fatally flawed characters. The National Republican Campaign Committee is spending more than 90 percent of its advertising budget on negative ads, according to GOP operatives, and the rest of the party seems to be following suit. A few examples of the “character issues” taking center stage two weeks before Election Day:

· In New York, the NRCC ran an ad accusing Democratic House candidate Michael A. Arcuri, a district attorney, of using taxpayer dollars for phone sex. “Hi, sexy,” a dancing woman purrs. “You’ve reached the live, one-on-one fantasy line.” It turns out that one of Arcuri’s aides had tried to call the state Division of Criminal Justice, which had a number that was almost identical to that of a porn line. The misdial cost taxpayers $1.25.

· In Ohio, GOP gubernatorial candidate J. Kenneth Blackwell, trailing by more than 20 points in polls, has accused front-running Democratic Rep. Ted Strickland of protecting a former aide who was convicted in 1994 on a misdemeanor indecency charge. Blackwell’s campaign is also warning voters through suggestive “push polls” that Strickland failed to support a resolution condemning sex between adults and children. Strickland, a psychiatrist, objected to a line suggesting that sexually abused children cannot have healthy relationships when they grow up.

· The Republican Party of Wisconsin distributed a mailing linking Democratic House candidate Steve Kagen to a convicted serial killer and child rapist. The supposed connection: The “bloodthirsty” attorney for the killer had also done legal work for Kagen.

· In two dozen congressional districts, a political action committee supported by a white Indianapolis businessman, J. Patrick Rooney, is running ads saying Democrats want to abort black babies. A voice says, “If you make a little mistake with one of your hos, you’ll want to dispose of that problem tout de suite, no questions asked.”

· In the most controversial recent ad, the Republican National Committee slammed Rep. Harold E. Ford Jr. (D-Tenn.) for attending a Playboy-sponsored Super Bowl party. In the ad, a scantily clad white actress winks as she reminisces about good times with Ford, who is black. That ad has been pulled, but the RNC has a new one saying Ford “wants to give the abortion pill to schoolchildren.”
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Some of this year’s negative ads are more substantive, reprising a successful Republican strategy from 2002 and 2004: portraying Democrats as soft on terrorism. For example, Rep. Nancy L. Johnson (R-Conn.) has an ad lambasting her opponent for opposing Bush’s efforts to conduct wiretaps without search warrants. A host of Democrats have been accused of trying to “cut and run” in Iraq — including House candidate Tammy Duckworth of Illinois, who lost both legs in Iraq.

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(Issues aside, anyone who has never set foot in Iraq, and who accuses a soldier whose legs were blown off there of wanting to “cut and run,” deserves to lose on grounds of being a jerk.)

The RNC has raised eyebrows with an ad consisting almost entirely of al-Qaeda videos starring Osama bin Laden and his top deputies. There is no sound except the ticking of a bomb before the final warning: “These are the stakes. Vote November 7th.” John G. Geer, a Vanderbilt professor who has written a book defending negative political ads, said he told a well-connected Republican friend in Washington that the ticking-bomb ploy seemed like a desperation move. The friend e-mailed back: “John, we’re desperate!”

Desperate times require desperate ads, I suppose.

It’s hard to object to ads that accurately spell out policy differences between candidates without resorting to misrepresentations of the “wants to allow illegal aliens to burn the flag” variety. But the wild and dirty stuff seems to grab more attention.

Two points are frequently made about negative ads:

1. Everyone says how much they hate them.

2. They’re effective.

Perhaps we’ll find out this year if there’s a point at which voters (figuratively, in the polling booths) cry “Enough!”

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