Return to civility? When we say ‘when’

Return to civility? When we say ‘when’

Tuesday night, in a debate featuring the candidates for governor of California, moderator Matt Lauer asked the Democrat, Jerry Brown, and the Republican, Meg Whitman, if both would take a pledge to drop their negative campaign ads.
What followed was a lot of posturing and maneuvering for the high ground by both candidates. Sadly, though, there were no commitments.
We say “sadly,” because the 2010 election can easily be dubbed the year of the attack ads.
True, negative campaign attacks are almost as old as the republic itself. In the 1828 presidential election, opponents of Andrew Jackson went so far as to accuse his wife of adultery — to no avail.
Still, in this election, we have seen our infatuation with the attack ad sink to new lows with candidates from both parties taking a flicker of truth from their opponents’ statements, appearances or votes and twisting it so far out of recognition that it becomes nothing less than a flat-out distortion.
We’ve seen this in the Pennsylvania Senate race where the Republican, Pat Toomey, tried to make a big deal of an appearance by the Democrat, Joe Sestak, before a Muslim organization with reputed ties to terrorist organizations, and his decision to sign on to a congressional letter urging President Obama to pressure Israel to reduce its security measures arrayed around the Gaza Strip, despite the rocket attacks originating there.
For his part, Sestak has played up Toomey’s seven votes in Congress against bills appropriating a total of $15 billion in aid for Israel, and four votes against funding for the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum.
(The Jewish Chronicle continues its longstanding tradition of refraining from candidate endorsements.)
Ask both campaigns, and they’ll say the attacks on their candidates have been taken seriously out of context, and to a great extent, they’re right. Neither of these candidates is anti-Israel; take that to the bank.
But there’s a bigger question at work here: Do the ever worsening waves of negative attacks erode the American electoral process — to the point where the voters really don’t understand who it is they’re voting for — or against?
We think they do. We also think there’s very little that can be done about it — not until the American voters express their disgust with the practice with every tool they have.
Fifteen years ago, a Republican candidate for governor of West Virginia, Cleve Benedict, visited the editorial board of the Morgantown newspaper. During that visit, the editor asked him about the proliferation of attack ads, which was bad even then.
Benedict was sympathetic to the argument, but then he added, “Darn it, Ralph, (only he didn’t say darn it), the negative stuff works.”
Don’t send angry letters to Benedict, wherever he is today. He only told the truth. The negative stuff does work, and will continue to work as long as we base our votes on it.
Attack ads are alive and well. They thrive because we listen to them; we watch them; we read them. They’re the new/old pop culture of America — the political comic books we love to share, trade, collect and discuss. And as long as we tolerate them, they won’t go away.