I’ve never understood what is so objectionable about so-called “negative campaigning” or “attack ads.” Why is it considered negative to take issue with something your opponent said or did? Why is it considered an attack to highlight his voting record or his previous statements in order to draw distinctions? It seems to me that such methods are not only legitimate but necessary and desirable in helping voters figure out where the candidates stand.
Not all attacks are aimed at clarifying policy differences, of course. We’ve seen both presidential candidates have their military service questioned, and it’s clear that the goal has been character assassination rather than elevation of the debate. Should these things be “out of bounds?” Perhaps. But I don’t buy the argument that such matters distract from the “real issues.” In the first place, it’s up to each voter to decide what issues are important and how to weigh them. In the next place, given such great access to information—through newspapers, television, and the Internet-- it’s simply not credible to suggest that voters can’t explore any issues they find relevant.
Beyond this, I submit that mudslinging, while driven by deplorable motives, does serve a purpose. In some cases, smoke really does lead to fire. If it turns out that one of the candidates truly engaged in something sinister, we should know about it. And if it turns out that mud is simply mud, well, that tells us something about the person throwing it, doesn’t it?
But also, a combative campaign gives us a chance to see what our candidates are made of. It’s enlightening to see how a candidate reacts to the pressure of an attack on his National Guard service, or on his self-publicized war credentials. Did the candidate meet the challenge? Did he buckle and wilt? Did he manage his campaign effectively? Presidentially? After all, if a candidate falters under such minor pressures, we certainly don’t want him at the helm when it comes time to deal with Iran and North Korea and their nuclear ambitions.
So I say bring on the negativism. Bring on the attack ads. The test shouldn’t be whether an ad is “negative.” It should be whether it’s true. And this is an area where the media has let us down. The “we report, you decide” mentality is a journalistic copout. It’s not enough to be “balanced.” It’s not enough to report what both sides say. It’s true that we don’t want journalists telling us what to think. But we do need them to do their jobs—to do some digging, some fact checking, and to seek independent confirmation.
Most of us simply don’t have the time or the energy to do our own research. At the same time we are increasingly aware that we can no longer rely on journalists to do it for us. This is why so many are turning to blogs. At their best, blogs are nothing less than a true grassroots effort to fill the void left by traditional news sources that have devolved into “mediamercials.” Blogs allow those who are willing and able to do the heavy lifting to benefit the larger community of those who have the interest but lack the resources.