Editor's Note: Negative Campaigning Makes it Hard to Put Faith in Either Candidate

Nov 1, 2008

Dana Heupel
Credit WUIS/Illinois Issues
Not long ago, I was complaining to a friend and colleague about a previous political campaign. “Why does it have to be so incredibly negative?” I grumbled. His simple reply: “It works.”

My friend, one of the better-known political writers in the state, is a pragmatist. He wasn’t endorsing the tactic; just stating a fact.

Well, it doesn’t work for me. After months of following the backs-and-forths of this year’s presidential campaign like a political tennis match, I am so sick of the negativity — from both camps — that I’m ready to check “None of the above” on the ballot.

These are serious times. We are struggling in a worldwide economic crisis. We are embroiled in a war that we can’t seem to extricate ourselves from. Millions of us cannot afford health care. Many Americans have lost their homes and a good portion of their retirement savings. The country has lost credibility around the world. Our public educational system is a shambles, and our higher education system is becoming too costly for many families to afford.

Yet here is a sampling of pronouncements from our would-be leaders: Barack Obama is risky and has past ties to a domestic terrorist; John McCain is erratic and has past ties to the man who was responsible for a savings-and-loan crisis. Obama voted against supporting our troops; McCain voted to slog into this quagmire of a war. Obama will raise everyone’s taxes, and his economic plan borders on socialism; McCain will provide more tax breaks to the wealthy and will continue George Bush's economic policies. And on and on and on it goes.

When it’s said and done, it’s hard to have any faith in either of them.

I know, political mudslinging is a time-honored tradition in America. Republicans in the 1860 election editorialized in a newspaper that Democrats engendered a “rendezvous of thieves, the home of parasites and bloodsuckers, the enemy of God and man, the stereotyped fraud, the sham, the hypocrite, the merciless marauder, and the outlaw renegade and malefactor,” Richard J. Carwardine wrote in the Journal of the Abraham Lincoln Association. And not to be outdone, according to Erin Carlson Mast, curator of Lincoln’s Cottage in Washington, D.C., Democrats of the time wailed in another newspaper that “Old Abe’s extreme ugliness has been remarked by all who have seen him or his picture. … [Lincoln] was advised to go to Illinois, where his ugliness might be turned to good account in scaring away the wolves.”

It’s hard to top that rhetoric. But McCain and Obama have both done their best.

True, McCain led the charge as polls showed his support dwindling. A study by the University of Wisconsin found that during the last week of October, 79 percent of McCain's ads were considered negative, compared with 63 percent for Obama. In early October, the university reported that throughout the entire election cycle, 73 percent of McCain’s ads and 61 percent of Obama’s were considered negative.

Despite his lower numbers in the University of Wisconsin study, Obama has held his own. Shortly before the second presidential debate, on a day when the Dow Jones Industrial Average dropped 500 points, his campaign sent a fundraising letter to supporters pointing out McCain’s associations with Charles Keating, who was jailed after the savings and loan crisis of the late 1980s. Of course, McCain was pointing his fingers at Obama’s connection to 1960s radical Bill Ayers, a founder of the Weather Underground, which claimed responsibility for bombings at the Pentagon and U.S. Capitol.

To my mind, the bickering between the two political camps while the world was spinning toward an economic calamity only served to illustrate how small both men were. Perhaps they began to realize it, as well. By the end of the month, the rhetoric had calmed somewhat, as polls indicated the over-the-top negative tone wasn’t playing well with voters.

U.S. Rep. Ray LaHood, a Republican from Peoria, has long led the call for civility in Congress. “Something has gone awry,” he told political columnist David Broder in 1996. While congressional leaders from opposing parties used to have drinks together after a heated debate, he said, they now barely spoke. And in 2005, he recalled to the Washington Post that immediately after 9/11, the two opposing parties finally were pulling together. “We were on the high road then,” he said, “but now, I think we’ve hit an all-time low.”

Some negative issues are certainly fair game. It’s entirely proper for 
Obama to point out that McCain supported the Iraq invasion, while he opposed it. McCain should observe that Obama opposed the troop surge while he supported it. Those are legitimate issues and truthfully conveyed.

However, parsing specific votes on legislation without providing context — such as McCain contending that Obama voted to cut off funding for troops in Iraq, or Obama trumpeting that McCain supports cuts in education spending and weaker school performance standards — falls somewhere between recklessly misleading voters and blatantly lying to them.

Both charges do contain an element of truth. Obama indeed voted against a funding bill for Iraq, but he voted for another bill that included money for the war effort along with a timeline for withdrawal. McCain did vote once for a 1 percent cut in the education budget, according to the St. Petersburg Times/Congressional Quarterly fact-checking column, but he has been a longtime advocate of other education funding increases. And he did oppose a bill to impose stricter educational standards, not because he’s against accountability, but because he sees it as a function of the state — not the federal — government.

Anyone who has followed legislation in the Illinois General Assembly for any length of time knows that few votes express clear-cut positions. Palatable bills are often served up with distasteful side dishes, or frequently, lawmakers vote against a specific bill because they support another one that accomplishes the same goal.

Political humor — however negative — also is a time-honored tradition, and so long as it skewers both sides, it’s an arguably healthy pastime. God knows we need to laugh at our leaders on occasion. Even the most partisan among us have to surrender at least a chuckle over Tina Fey’s dead-on impression of Sarah Palin or Amy Poehler’s characterization of Hillary Clinton on Saturday Night Live. Comedians and humorists such as Chevy Chase and Will Rogers, along with countless political cartoonists, have smashed political pumpkins for centuries.

Not so funny, though, are the damaging innuendos and unspoken insinuations by the candidates or their supporters. There are some who remain convinced that Obama is a revolutionary Muslim or that McCain is a reckless, trigger-happy eccentric. And the issues of race and age play out behind the curtain while the political actors read their tightly crafted lines on stage.

At times during this campaign, it has been unnerving to see crowds at political events whipped into a fury over some negative characterization of their candidate’s opponent. Those kinds of hysterics could lead to an event that nobody wants to happen. And that kind of rage is not soon forgotten, no matter who wins.

Dana Heupel can be reached at heupel.dana@uis.edu.

Illinois Issues, November 2008