If you can’t say anything nice … you might as well run for office.
Every year brings primaries and general elections for various posts at the local, state and federal levels. Every year brings tactics aimed at making candidates look — no other word for it — bad. And every year, the subject about negative campaigning gets dusted off but never laid to rest.
The political system and the voting public would have an easier time dealing with this issue if not for ambivalence. It’s not unusual to see politicians condemn negative campaigning at the same time they’re scorching the earth against their opponents. Many voters call it a turn-off, but if the practice didn’t have value the candidates wouldn’t use it as much.
Besides, subjectivity makes it hard to reach a consensus on what exactly constitutes negative campaigning. As the old saying goes, it depends on whose ox is being gored. One person’s hardball is another person’s dirty pool.
Even if we all agree that the problem is a big knot made of snakes, that doesn’t tell us how to untie it. Where do we turn for solutions?
We could try the government — nationalizing elections the same way Washington seems intent on nationalizing the economy. Remember one thing, though. If you think negative campaigning has gone out of control, it happened on the government’s watch. Ever since the Watergate scandal, well-meaning politicians have assumed more and more regulatory control over campaign financing. Besides restricting your ability to express yourself politically, these policies helped serve as the midwives for such groups as Swift Boat Veterans for Truth by redirecting some donations from candidates to advocacy organizations.
A candidate who goes beyond the pale has to answer to voters, supporters and his or her party. A “527” group with a life that may be no longer than one election cycle answers to whom, exactly?
We’ll find a more viable answer in a place frequented by some of history’s great thinkers: the marketplace of ideas.
Reasonable people can judge for themselves. Reasonable people can distinguish between relevant questions and smear tactics. Reasonable people can separate genuine bona fides from desperate smoke screens.
Most of all, reasonable people know that going negative says as much about the gunner as the target. They can tell when candidates have crossed certain lines, when candidates debase the process to the extent that they disqualify themselves.
Of course, we were joking when we said that if you can’t say anything nice you might as well run for office. But if you can bring nothing to the table except the ability to sling mud, or the willingness to stand to the side while others sling it on your behalf, you’re just wasting the voters’ time.