Negative attacks, they say, have long been part of politics. In “Going Dirty: the Art of Negative Campaigning” by David Mark, we’re told that in the 1828 presidential election, Andrew Jackson’s political allies nicknamed John Quincy Adams “the Pimp,” a reference to “a rumor that while he was ambassador to Russia a decade earlier, he had coerced a young woman into having an affair with a czar.”
Abraham Lincoln fared slightly better. In “Lincoln, a Photobiography,” Russell Freedman writes, “Hostile editors and politicians snickered at ‘this backwards president’ and his ‘boorish’ wife. They taunted Lincoln as a hick with a high-pitched voice and a Kentucky twang, an ugly ‘gorilla’ and ‘baboon.’ ”
Negative campaigning is nothing new. But something has changed, and not for the better.
In 2010, negative campaigning isn’t just a feature of elections — it’s the centerpiece. In a typical statewide race, the candidate spends 12 to 24 months on the phone, beating the bushes for cash and endorsements. An issue tab on a website or occasional white paper may be thrown out here and there, but by and large the candidate’s time is consumed with tactical considerations (read: fund-raising), not issues.
Then, before the primary or general election, the ads start. Inevitably, most are negative. You won’t learn much about how the candidate feels about balancing budgets, national security or the future of public education. But if he or she got a parking ticket, you’ll hear about it … ad nauseam.
It’s almost as if, to win, a candidate must be the one with the fewest blemishes at the end of a bruising political season. In such a world, the mere ability to survive surpasses all other considerations.
But it wasn’t always so. Imagine if statewide campaigns consisted of several three-hour debates, covering the breadth and depth of the issues of the day. Imagine standing-room-only crowds for these debates, with the press reprinting them, verbatim, in the papers. Imagine citizens who couldn’t attend the debates spending hours to read these reports in their entirety.
Of course I’m describing the 1858 U.S. Senate race between Abraham Lincoln and Stephen Douglas, but it illustrates the kind of substantive campaigns that were once commonplace in America. In such a context, negative campaigning would have been, at most, a distraction from the crucial issues. Elections were decided, at the end, on matters of substance.
Yes, negative attacks have always been a part of politics. But as the political culture of debate has withered away, our elections become little more than stage-managed food fights. This year, we should demand more. We can’t make the negative ads go away, but we can ignore them — and focus instead on the issues that matter.
Rob Witwer is a former member of the Colorado House of Representatives and co-author of the book “The Blueprint: How the Democrats Won Colorado (and Why Republicans Everywhere Should Care).”