American politics is not a gentleman’s sport. Candidates for most offices attack each other relentlessly. Sometimes they criticize their opponents’ policy views and plans for the future. Sometimes the focus is on the record in public office or private business of the people they’re running against. And, not infrequently, they attack each other’s character and integrity.
It is a long-standing belief among professional politicians that negative campaigns work, that an effective way to strengthen one candidate is to weaken the other. And in America there are no formal restrictions on what candidates can say about each other. No standard of truth or civility applies.
In modern campaigns, much of the attacking is done not by one candidate on the other, but by so-called “independent groups.” These are citizens who spend their own money, without formal affiliation with a campaign, to buy advertising space in a newspaper or time on television or radio to criticize a candidate for public office. Any American can do this without restriction on the content of the attack advertising.
One of the common strategies in recent presidential campaigns is for the supporters of one candidate to try to undercut the strengths of the other. In 2004, for example, the Democratic candidate, John Kerry, had been decorated for his heroism in the American war with Vietnam.
His opponent George W. Bush, though of similar age to Kerry, had not served in combat during that war. Americans have an affection for war heroes, and this looked like an advantage for Kerry. But an independent group calling itself the Swift Boat Veterans for Truth ran a series of television ads suggesting that John Kerry did not really deserve the medals he’d won in Vietnam and had not been truthful about his service record.
Some of their ads focused on the testimony Kerry famously gave to the Senate Foreign Relations Committee shortly after he returned from Vietnam. In that appearance, he criticized the American effort in Vietnam and called for it to end. The Swift Boat Veterans for Truth created advertisements that showed Kerry testifying, but featured other veterans who said they felt that he had abandoned them.
By most accounts, the Swift Boat offensive worked. It diminished one of Kerry’s advantages over Bush in a close election that Bush won.
We’re seeing similar strategies at work in 2012. The Republican candidate, Mitt Romney, has little experience in public office, serving only 4 years as governor of a mid-sized state. He has tried to turn this into an advantage. He presents himself, not as a politician, but as a successful businessman who will bring his business skills and experience to government to help boost the national economy by creating jobs. He points to his leadership of Bain Capital, the company he founded and headed for more a decade and at which he earned a significant fortune.
But the Obama campaign has dug deeply into the record of Bain Capital and argued in its attack ads that Bain succeded by laying off American workers, that some of the companies it bought ultimately failed, and—most damning of all—that Bain shipped American jobs overseas by outsourcing work that had been performed by Americans.
Every candidate wants to keep his or her opponent on the defensive, and that’s what the Obama ads have been doing. While Romney wants to talk about the weakness of the American economy under Obama and the flaws in the health care plan that Obama pushed through Congress, he’s been forced instead to respond to the criticisms of his business record.
The weak economy is a problem for Obama. But if he can change the subject, if he can get voters to focus on Romney’s business record, if he can undercut Romney’s greatest strength, his chances of winning are greatly improved. So that’s what he seeks to do.
The negative campaign may work—indeed, the record and most research shows that it can. But it has troublesome consequences. When two presidential candidates spend most of a year saying terrible things about each other, the voters often come to like neither of them.
One of them will win and be inaugurated next January. But, whoever it is, the likelihood is high that half the American people will distrust, perhaps even detest, their president, and the other half will be less than enthusiastic in their support.
It’s often said in America that the purpose of an election is to form a government. But when elections carry so negative a tone, the government they form starts off with powerful, perhaps insuperable, disadvantages. We may form a government, but it will have great difficulty governing a country full of people who don’t trust, and don’t even much like, its leaders. G. Calvin Mackenzie