Shortly after it was clear that Democratic Sen. Barack Obama and Republican Sen. John McCain would be their respective party nominees, I was hopeful that we might see the most uplifting presidential campaign of recent generations.
McCain was a maverick, known for speaking his mind, even when his views differed from mainstream Republicans, while Obama’s rhetorical style and message captured the imaginations of Democrats, independents and more than a few Republicans.
The stage was set. Everyone who wanted to see a substantive campaign was thrilled by the prospect of a series of 10 weekly town hall meetings. But it was not to be. Obama refused McCain’s invitation, and both campaigns have since taken the low road, each blaming the other for “starting it,” as if it matters who jumped in the mud first.
Obama pre-emptively played the race card when he said, “They’re going to try to say, well, you know, he’s got a funny name, and he doesn’t look like all the presidents on the dollar bills.” It was a low point, but was certainly matched by McCain’s recent ads claiming that Obama wants to teach sex ed to kindergartners, knowingly distorting Obama’s position.
Of course, Obama has no problem with distortion, deliberately ignoring context in claiming that McCain wants to extend the war in Iraq for 100 years. McCain came right back and attacked Obama for saying, “You can put lipstick on a pig, but it’s still a pig,” insisting he was talking about Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin, even though McCain used the same analogy last year in a Chicago Tribune article while discussing Sen. Hillary Clinton.
Beyond overestimating the character of both candidates, I was also optimistic about the possibility of a meaningful campaign because the candidates’ positions are so different on so many substantive issues: Iraq, Iran, Georgia, Social Security, health care, taxes, free trade, abortion, education, stem cell research, etc. One of the reasons Obama and Clinton were reduced to debating for 30 minutes about a lapel pin is that their positions were indistinguishable for most of us. With McCain and Obama, there is no such limitation, except for their self-imposed focus on the trivial.
After the Bush campaign effectively ended McCain’s 2000 run by spreading a rumor that the senator had an illegitimate black child, one would have hoped that McCain would rise above making vicious attacks. One also would have hoped that, when Obama said the time for change is now, experience be damned, use me as your vehicle for a new America, part of that change would be to run an honorable campaign. As so many of my friends predicted, I was wrong on both counts.
As disappointing as these candidates have been (and they certainly have to shoulder some of the blame for their actions), the real blame lies with us, the voters. We love negative advertising. We believe it, we listen to it, we send money to support it and, in the end, we vote based on it. Even worse, we deny it.
We are a nation of people who don’t slow down to watch traffic accidents, but somehow traffic backs up for miles if someone pulls over to change a tire. I’ve never met anyone who watches Jerry Springer, but millions of people do and it’s not the fault of TV executives. They air what people want to watch, it’s that simple. Sadly, political experts know that negative advertising works.
Spread some rumors that Obama is secretly a Muslim or that McCain has illegitimate children and people are only too happy to believe it. How many e-mails have you received detailing the evil deeds of one or both of the candidates? Most rational people hit the delete key, but millions of Americans see these e-mails, make a decision and, if nothing good is on television come Election Day, go cast their votes. And their votes count the same as the votes of people who actually try to make decisions based on understanding the issues and the candidates’ positions.
If we hope to ever have a substantive presidential campaign fought between honorable opponents, it will start with us, the voters. Ignore the trash. Don’t forward the e-mails, and resist voting for candidates who appeal to the worst in us. Write letters and e-mails to the candidates, the parties and the stations carrying the attack ads, letting them know you’re tired of it. Until we demand better from our candidates, we will never have the quality elected officials we want, but will continue to get the ones we deserve.
Scott Harris is a political commentator. Read his columns and contact him through his Web site, www.scottharris.biz, or e-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org.