Brace yourselves for what may become the most negative campaign season in American history. By the time this year’s general election rolls around on Nov. 7, you will probably have been subjected to more mud-slinging, more character assassination and more 30-second doses of general nastiness about political candidates than ever before.
Why? The incumbent Republican Party is o"n the ropes, and many believe that their only hope for fending off Democratic challengers this season will be in the form of highly personal, excruciatingly negative attack ads on the candidates who oppose them. Republican operatives know full well that any individual race is as much about two people as it is about two sets of ideas.
The speculation is that Republicans intend to make personalities the issue this year with unprecedented viciousness in order to deflect criticisms away from their failed policies. Democrats are going to have a tough time keeping their attacks focused on the issues, even though voter dissatisfaction with President Bush and the Republican-controlled Congress is at near-record highs.
The word on the street is that Republicans intend to keep their guns silent until about five weeks prior to Election Day. Then, on or about Oct. 1, all hell is going to break loose. They’re going to use their substantial war chests to blast Democratic challengers with highly critical ads that hit below the belt and as close to home as possible. In spite of improvements to their campaign apparatus, the Democratic Party is still badly outmanned and outgunned by its Republican rivals in terms of fundraising and organization.
What we’re hearing is that Republicans intend to press their advantage in a well-coordinated, hugely negative way. Here in Louisville you can expect the $2 million Northup machine to extract, manipulate and obfuscate every nuanced phrase John Yarmuth has ever uttered or written. You can be sure they’ll try to make their case as to why Yarmuth should not be elected, rather than why Anne Northup should be.
The size of the Republican war chest means that their anti-message will be delivered long and loud. You can expect to see the same trend nationwide, and as a result many races may well be decided on the basis of who we don’t want to elect rather than who we do. When the political dust begins to settle on Nov. 8, we may well shake our heads and name 2006 the year of the “anti-election.”
The ominous overtones are that negative campaign tactics are becoming more refined, more deadly and, increasingly, these tactics are becoming the accepted modus operandi for the achievement of political success. Democrats can, of course, be just as prone to go negative as their Republican counterparts. Both parties are afraid to eschew anti-candidate tactics because they fear it is impossible to win without them.
The proliferation of Political Action Committees (PACs) like “Swift Boat Veterans for Truth” has only exacerbated the problem. Rather than advertise in favor of a candidate, PACs launch vicious attacks against personalities instead. Negative campaigning has become an entrenched, permanent fixture of American political life, to the point where any real dialog about the issues becomes almost impossible. Worse yet, good people are frightened away from the process, and our collective national psyche suffers as a result.
Not all modern democracies have embraced negative tactics the way we Americans have. Voter backlash has contributed to several crushing defeats for both major parties in Canadian federal elections. Canadian voters, it seems, don’t react as well to trash talk as do their American counterparts.
Maybe that’s why there’s a running joke north of the border that Canadians are “Americans with a conscience.” Voters in the United States have become so jaded by the flaws in our political process that we have lost our will to do anything about it. Until we are sufficiently motivated to mount a serious backlash against negativity, the mud-slinging will continue to increase unabated.
“No one likes negative campaigning, but unfortunately it works,” a well-placed Republican friend told me. “We don’t want to do it any more than you do, but who’s going to be the first to break the cycle?” The answer has to be us. It is time for the American electorate to express its disgust at the continuing trend toward nastiness in American politics. Let’s reject candidates who go heavily negative against their opponents. If we succeed in doing that, maybe we’ll discover that Americans can, in fact, be citizens with a conscience.
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