Just when you thought political campaigns could not get any uglier, along came the 2010 mid-year congressional campaign. Mud-slinging has reach new lows, negative campaigns are the order of the day, and candidates, after attesting to some of the most outlandish behavior, are finding their support actually increasing.
If this were not crazy enough, absurd attacks have totally confounded those seeking to make sense out of the political alternatives, the media is so distracted that they are consistently unable or unwilling to focus on rational policy differences, and the public is being deluged with millions of dollars of ads.
Modern campaigns especially have never presented politics in the best light. Recall some of the uglier incidents from recent history:
• In 1964, the Johnson campaign aired the famous “Daisy Girl” advertisement one time, painting Sen. Barry Goldwater as a nuclear bomb thrower. After that, LBJ only needed to allude to the ad to bring fear into the minds of voters.
• In 1972, CREEP, the Committee to Re-Elect the President, had Richard Nixon’s henchman, Donald Segretti, and his bag of “dirty tricks.” His activities today appear tame when compared to those we’ve witnessed this year.
• In 1988, Lee Atwater worked overtime in creating the Willie Horton ads that made Michael Dukakis look weak on crime (despite the fact that the program in question was initiated by his predecessor).
And it’s not just the ads: This year there have been debates in which reporters were so nonplussed by candidates’ non-answers that they had no idea how to follow up. Candidates are willing to ignore or falsify the historical record to challenge opponents. Discussions about candidates’ most intimate personal beliefs and behaviors make President Clinton’s discussion of the word “is” seem like child’s play.
Much of this has been abetted by a system of campaign financing that makes a mockery of democracy. The Watergate scandal energized the American public to demand that Congress create controls and restrictions on campaign spending. The Federal Election Campaign Act was amended in 1974 to set limits and create greater accountability on individuals’, PACs’, and corporate campaign giving. Eight years ago the McCain-Feingold act revised the legal limits of the 1974 law in order to check unregulated campaign contributions or “soft money.”
Now, in the wake of last January’s five-four U.S. Supreme Court ruling in the Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission case, money is pouring into the 2010 campaign coffers just like in the “good old days.” The ruling has allowed independent third parties — including corporations, unions, and foreign donors — to fund ads in near anonymity.
The 2010 election may well revert to financial excesses not seen since George Steinbrenner and his friends ran circles around the American election system during the height of the Watergate era. In September, total budget projections suggested that over $4 billion would be spent on political ads in 2010, doubling the amount spent in 2008. Current projections suggest that $3 billion will be spent on political broadcast ads this year, constituting 10 percent (up from 5-6 percent) of the advertising revenue previously received by broadcasting authorities.
After the gross excesses of this campaign season, the public may well demand that Congress enact new reforms for campaign spending. Despite the public’s consistent displeasure with Washington, however, it is unlikely that the tone and tenor of the campaigns themselves will become more elevated or civilized. While the expenditures may bother the public, there is evidence that this year’s energized voters, especially Tea Partyers, enjoy the mud-slinging. Once it becomes apparent that some of these newly elected officials cannot govern, perhaps public acceptance of noise over substance may dissipate.
All of this leaves America with an electoral system that panders to the lowest common denominator and insults the intelligence of the American people. Herbert Alexander called money the “the mother’s milk” of American politics. Lately it’s the junk food of politics: irresistible, empty, and unhealthy.