Many of this fall's election campaigns have descended into a pit of negativity and an endless cycle of attack and counterattack. This is often the norm in American politics, but the campaigns of 2010 seem to be among the nastiest in memory.
President Obama has borne the brunt of the rancor until very recently. He has been vilified as a socialist, a threat to the country's future worse than that posed by Nazi Germany, and an illegal president who supposedly wasn't born in the United States. Former House Speaker Newt Gingrich says Obama has a "Kenyan anti-colonial world view" that is "authentically dishonest." Conservative radio commentator Rush Limbaugh even recently said that Obama looks "demonic."
Now the negativity is spreading through the political system, from one campaign to another, as both Democrats and Republicans stoop low to get the upper hand in the November 2 elections. A recent Associated Press survey finds that "a blitz of negative ads is hitting the air in more than two dozen tight congressional races," with the financing often provided by anonymous donors.
The attacks range from the ordinary to the bizarre. In Kentucky, Democratic senatorial candidate Jack Conway has been running a television ad accusing Republican nominee Rand Paul of belonging to a strange religious sect, based on an alleged incident from when Paul was in college. Paul says the claims are rubbish and that he is a committed Christian. And at a debate earlier this month, Paul repeated the famous rebuke against Red-baiter Joe McCarthy from the 1950s: "Jack, have you no decency? Have you no shame?" Underscoring his disgust, Paul refused to shake Conway's hand after the debate.
In New York, Republican gubernatorial candidate Carl Paladino confronted New York Post reporter Fred Dicker over how he has covered the race. "I'll take you out, buddy," the candidate warned. When Dicker asked, "How are you going to do that?" Paladino replied ominously, "Watch."
And it's not just name-calling and threats. In Alaska, Republican senatorial candidate Joe Miller's private security guards seized and handcuffed reporter Tony Hopfinger of the Alaska Dispatch last week at a public event, even though they had no authority to do so. The reporter had apparently tried to ask Miller a question he didn't want to answer (the candidate said he felt threatened).
Some candidates are trying to avoid the news media altogether. Instead they are resorting to paid ads, speeches, and surrogates to attack the other side almost constantly.
In some ways, nastiness has become par for the course. And this is especially true this fall with so many close races, with so many candidates desperate for a way to win, and with so much ideological polarization that rules out compromise. Among the worst offenders as negative campaigners are both Democratic Sen. Harry Reid of Nevada and his GOP challenger Sharron Angle; Democratic Sen. Barbara Boxer of California and her Republican opponent Carly Fiorina, and Democratic Sen. Michael Bennet of Colorado and his GOP challenger Ken Buck.
" 'Going negative' is now seen as the only route to victory for candidates at all levels," partly because attacks tend to be emotional and memorable, and they stand out amid the clutter of tedious policy discussions and positive approaches, write Philip Patterson and Lee Wilkins in the latest edition of Media Ethics: Issues and Cases (McGraw-Hill, 2010). "And as an added inducement to create negative ads, candidates see them run repeatedly, for free, as the negative charge is debated on cable news over and over."
All of this brings to mind a remark that iconic former White House speechwriter Ted Sorensen recently attributed to President John F. Kennedy: "Civility is not a sign of weakness." Today's politicians seem to believe quite the opposite.
In fact, the era of comity and respect that was promoted by candidate Barack Obama and others in 2008 is today only a vague hope. And it seems to fade with each passing day and each negative ad. Once the campaign is over, the public may end up with little or no confidence that their leaders can ever pull themselves out of the snake pit, not only in campaigning but also in getting down to the business of governing. It's a toxic environment made to order for stalemate.