It was a nasty race and it kept getting nastier. Four years prior the challenger had to lost to the incumbent. He spent those years publicly stewing over the “corrupt bargain” that had cost him the office.
When the rematch came around the challenger held nothing back. He and his allies called the incumbent a gambler and even a “pimp.” They called his wife a tramp for good measure.
The incumbent and his allies retorted that challenger was a polygamist and a war criminal. One advertisement warned voters that if the hotheaded challenger won he would start randomly hanging people.
Did this grudge match symbolizing the decay of American political culture happen in some backwoods hellhole or decaying inner city?
No, this was the 1828 race for the presidency between Andrew Jackson and John Quincy Adams. Jackson won and Adams, to spite him, refused to take part in the inauguration.
IT’S ONE OF THE many stories told in David Mark’s engaging history Going Dirty: The Art of Negative Campaigning. The book actually came out in 2006, but in the wake of the current primary season it has a certain renewed relevance, shall we say.
Namely, that people who hope for purely high-minded debates over holding public office are naive in the extreme. Running for office is an inherently grubby business and always has been. Why should we expect a fight over political power to be anything but?
Mark, a former editor in chief of Campaigns & Elections and a current senior editor at the Politico, takes it a step further even. Negative campaigning, he says, is a good thing and we need more of it.
“[D]espite claims that negative campaigning turns voters off, it’s the most partisan races that often bring more people to the polls. The 2004 presidential campaign, one of the most heated in recent memory, produced a voter turnout of roughly 60 percent, the highest in 36 years,” Mark writes.
His other point is that negative ads and similar tactics are often the only way voters will hear about the unflattering aspects of a candidate’s record. The candidate certainly isn’t going to bring these things up.
Mostly though, Going Dirty is a goldmine of great historical nuggets. Mark recounts how California Gov. Pat Brown in 1966 was the first to use the tactic of interfering in the other party’s primary. The Democratic governor leaked information damaging to one candidate in the hopes the GOP would back another, weaker candidate. It turned out to be Ronald Reagan’s first political break.
He describes exactly how Lyndon Johnson’s famous “Daisy” ad created the concept of free media. The literally apocalyptic spot aired only once on Johnson’s dime but was replayed endlessly by network news programs.
Or how about Jesse Helms’s legendary reelection bids? Those pioneered the use of ads featuring grainy black and white footage, sinister music and sharp editing to make his opponents look as though they were just caught in an undercover police anti-child porn sting.
“For a politician so many considered a throwback to an earlier era…Helms’ campaigns consistently used cutting-edge technological and marketing techniques,” Mark notes.
Democrats howled at the time. By the 1990s they were using the same tactics against New Gingrich and Bob Dole.
MARK EVEN OFFERS the novel argument that country was founded with a negative ad. The Declaration of Independence, he explains, “is largely an itemization of ‘injuries and usurpations’ by the ruling British crown, and an often-stinging explanation about why King George III of England was ‘unfit to be the ruler of a free people.'”
So is this election any worse, what with its claims of secret amnesty plans and troop withdrawals and not-so-covert Mormon bashing? Mark says, nah.
“I don’t think it has been extraordinarily negative this time. There have been some hot spots. I think Romney has been the main perpetrator of the negative ads, especially over the immigration issue,” Mark told me. “But it has been relatively civil.”
Even if you disagree with his assessment you have to agree that voters have certainly had a chance to hear about the things Mitt Romney, Rudy Giuliani, Mike Huckabee, and John McCain don’t highlight in their own press releases.
“Otherwise you would never get anything even remotely resembling the truth. You’d think Romney was a hardline conservative his entire career,” Mark told me. “You’d think John Edwards was a crusading populist when in the Senate he voted for things like the bankruptcy reform bill…You’d never hear about the more sordid episodes of the Clinton presidency.”
ALSO, HOW WELL a candidate stands up to an attack is a good indicator of how they may deal with high-pressure situations in office. It proves just how tough and resourceful the candidate is, Mark says.
I must confess I’m not quite as sanguine about negative campaigning as Mark is. Some attack ads are outright lies or twist the truth so violently that they are tantamount to lies. And while the process may indeed cancel itself out sometimes as Mark describes, it doesn’t always.
How many seniors, for example, have voted in elections because they honestly feared their Social Security checks were on the line? I don’t see how voting based on false information is good for the country or Democracy.
But I agree with Mark that there is no way to “fix” this and that the attempts to do so are usually failures (as John “Let’s get the special interest money out of politics” McCain has learned, one hopes). The answer to speech is always more free speech, including negative attack ads.