Mark Hemmingway at NRO has made an excellent case as to why we NEED “voter education ads” otherwise known as “negative ads” or “contrast ads”. I can’t even begin to capture the essence of this the way Mark does, so let me highlight the best of this article. But it’s one that needs to be read in it’s entirety when you have a chance.
It’s hard to determine what kind of stunt Mike Huckabee was trying to pull when he unveiled his proposed negative ad against Mitt Romney for the assembled media on Monday. He did so not, of course, before he oh-so-magnanimously explained to the assembled press that he was above negative campaign tactics and had pulled the proposed ad from Iowa TV stations.
Was this dissembling a disingenuous tactic proposed by Huckabee’s occasionally shifty campaign manager Ed Rollins? Or was it the Baptist preacher evincing a sincere desire to not be pushed into running a dirty campaign? The media was certainly credulous about the stunt, though I think Mike Huckabee’s motivations are almost beside the point…
…As far as I can tell, there is nothing wrong with them. And yet, the stigma is so bad that the Romney campaign has insisted on referring to their Huckabee attacks as “contrast ads.” That’s a fairly cowardly description. Make no mistake, the impetus of the ads that Romney has been running recently in Iowa is to tear Huckabee down rather than build Romney up. The better euphemism would be that they are “voter education ads.” However off-putting the aesthetics of such ads are — with their unflattering black and white photos and dissonant piano chords — negative campaign ads are just about the only occasion voters are offered any real facts or substantive information about a candidate…
…However, somewhere along the line, the media and the electorate at large have become comfortable with the idea that people interviewing for the toughest job in the world should not be judged in relative terms. Instead, elections have become rather like pageants — candidates are allowed to make their case individually, but are not permitted by the rules of etiquette to go after one another. It’s as if they think they can sashay down the catwalk, hoping that guest judge Erik Estrada is impressed enough by the interview segment in which they rattled off their five-point plan to partition Iraq and share oil revenues, to overcome the lackluster score from their trumpet rendition of the theme from Star Wars in the talent competition. That last bit may seem like a joke, but Huckabee showed up on Leno the night before the Iowa caucuses playing his bass with The Tonight Show band. Bootsy he is not, but it was still a shrewd move. Remember when Bill Clinton went on Arsenio and played saxophone and George W. Bush started speaking Spanish on the campaign trail? The media astonishment was comparable to coming home and discovering the family dog was in the middle of weatherproofing the deck…
The coarseness of American culture, manifested by even its cable news programs, is a topic of substantial commentary. Yet somehow the media has also accepted as axiomatic, the idea that negative ads somehow are offensive to the electorate at large, and especially the genteel Midwestern dispositions of Iowa voters.
If Huckabee won because Iowans are easily off-put by Romney’s negativity, we really need to do something about the primary schedule such that we aren’t stuck with Hawkeyes’ delicate sensibilities determining the leader of the free world in every election. Perhaps the national parties could be convinced with the right ad campaign: “Iowa … wrong on corn subsidies… wrong on winter weather… wrong on the Byzantine electoral selection process… WRONG FOR AMERICA!”
But obviously, Iowans — and others — can handle the truth that comes with negative ads. Otherwise they wouldn’t be so darn effective and politicians wouldn’t use them. That’s why, like clockwork, we turn on the TV every November and find ourselves staring at grainy photos of some schmuck in a suit angrily pointing his finger at us while randomly selected pejorative adjectives from local newspapers dissolve slowly on and off the screen.
More than anything, we say we want politicians to be honest. And yet, we make them smile through their teeth and pretend to like the other guy every election. Let them be honest about why they don’t like the other guy and we might get better leaders. But before we can demand honest politicians, perhaps we need to be honest with ourselves — about the fact we like and need negative campaign ads.
And let’s not forget, there is a hideous encouragement that somehow it is even remotely acceptable to declare open season by unethical or unconstitutional push-polling or other below-the-belt shadow campaigning. The sick attacks on Mitt Romney’s religion reveal a bottom-feeding baseness of the other candidates and their advisers, namely Mike Huckabee, Dick Morris, Ed Rollins, and John McCain that reveal the most disgusting enterprise of this country. This sadly has existed since the first religionists landed on the shore of this country. You would think this country has stopped burning people at the stake, but there is no doubt the practice continues virtually.