In 2006, the Washington Post ran a piece "The Year of Playing Dirtier: Negative ads get positively surreal." Every election cycle, people complain about attack ads and pundits argue that they're worse this time than last. This year's just-concluded campaign was no different. During a debate with her Democratic opponent, Rep. Michele Bachmann, leader of the Tea Party caucus, lamented the use of attack ads. Despite running some negative commercials herself, Bachmann admitted she didn't like the genre. While moderating a recent debate for candidates for Governor Meg Whitman and Jerry Brown, Today show host Matt Lauer went so far as to ask both politicians to take their negative ads off the air.
Attack ads can certainly be over the top. A group in Florida ran one accusing GOP gubernatorial candidate Rick Scott of wanting to release "tens of thousands of prisoners early." Jack Conway, the Democrat running for Senate in Kentucky, may have fared better had he neglected to use what is now the most infamous ad of the year: In "Why?" the narrator disparages opponent Rand Paul's faith by asking why he would tie a woman up and tell her to claim his god was "Aqua Buddha." Such dishonest -- to mention in outlandish -- rhetoric give political ads a bad name.
But the problem with the above ads isn't their negativity. It's their dishonesty. If used correctly, attack ads are a helpful tool, a 30-second tutorial in a political opponent's character, ideology, and record. Busy and forgetful voters need visual, intellectual, and even emotional reminders of which candidate should earn their vote. This is not a new tactic. When opponents thought Grover Cleveland had fathered a child out of wedlock -- then a grievous personal and political error -- it was fashioned into a memorable ditty: "Ma, ma, where's my Pa?" The slogan was memorable, even if it didn't work. Cleveland supporters later shot back, "Gone to the White House, ha, ha, ha!"
It's hard to say to what extent attack ads aided this year's Republican takeover, given the economy and President Obama's unpopularity. But they probably played a role in bringing candidates to victory, especially in the tight races. Marco Rubio and Florida Governor Charlie Crist had a robust campaign swollen with incisive attack ads. With razor sharp simplicity -- one Rubio ad shows two computer screens playing flip-flops of Crist's various political positions -- he slices not his opponent, but his record and veracity. The approach worked; Rubio's heading to Washington.
In a competitive race for a House seat in Missouri, Republican challenger Vicky Hartzler nailed Rep. Ike Skelton with what some thought was a negative ad gone too far. The ad discussed the 33-year House veteran's record while including footage of him swearing at a colleague on the House floor. The truth hurts: she's in; he's out.
Profanity was a theme in ads this year. Bachmann's opponent, Tarryl Clark, who agreed with the Congresswoman during the aforementioned debate that attack ads have gone too far, played that hand herself. In one ad, Clark says in the aftermath of the BP Gulf oil spill Bachmann wasn't "doing bleep for the people of the 6th District." The narrator fails to use profane language -- it actually makes a bleep sound -- but the commercial was ineffective because it was immature.
But such ads do connect with voters' short attention spans. Multi-hour Lincoln Douglas debates are out; 140 character Tweets are in. When attack ads are honest, they can be effective. And that's something pundits shouldn't attack.