October 20, 2006

Attack ads are important sources of information

You’ve probably heard it. It is on TV day after day, and its shrill voice pierces the quiet autumn night.

What is that sound, you ask?

It’s a politician, whining about campaign attack ads.

“Stop going negative!” he screams. “I just want to stick to the issues!” he cries. “I just want to stay positive!” he whines.

If they really wanted to clear the air, they’d show some leadership (or cojones) and stop their complaining.

In my home state of Massachusetts, for instance, Democrat Deval Patrick and Republican Kerry Healey are both running for governor, and Healey recently began running an ad exposing Patrick, who was a lawyer, as defending a cop-killer and as throwing his financial support behind a man who raped an elderly woman. The voters are interested; Patrick’s 30-point lead in the polls was cut in half. Then, a story appeared in a local paper that Patrick’s brother-in-law had raped his sister and was now living in Massachusetts without registering as a sex offender as required by law.

Tough to handle? Definitely. Patrick’s response? “It disgusts me. And it must be stopped.” No comment on the sex-offender registry law. No rebuttal of the assault on his crime credentials.

Or how about the stylings of Mark Drake, spokesman for the Republican committee in Minnesota? He says, “Republicans here are going to stay positive and stay focused on their records.” He adds that the Democratic Gubernatorial Candidate Mike Hatch “attacks the governor every five minutes.” Again, what are their “records”? No mention there.

Patrick and Drake, like many politicians these days, just don’t get it. Attack ads provide the voters with information about the candidate that is important and cannot be told in a positive way. That is why they are called “negative” ads. A voter should be informed not only of what they might like about the candidate, but also about what they might not like. A public servant is exactly that—public—and the people need to know about the negative things just as much as about the positive things. For example, the fact that a congressman ignored the signs that his fellow congressman was having inappropriate contact with underage boys seems like worthwhile information to me.

More importantly, an attack ad allows an opportunity for a candidate to show what kind of a leader he is. Will he let a TV commercial define him as soft on crime, or will he turn around and show the voters his own plan? Will he fold under pressure, or will he rise to the challenge and rebut the real essence of the negative attack?

Back in 1988, it was revealed the Presidential Candidate Michael Dukakis had given hard criminals weekend furloughs, where they could, essentially, take “weekends off” from prison. One of them, Willie Horton, ended up raping a woman on his furlough and terrorizing her fiance. Bush hammered Dukakis again and again about it. Dukakis never recovered because he allowed Bush to define him as soft on crime.

That’s not the type of leader Americans want. They want the type of leader who doesn’t just say he wants to stay “positive.” They want someone who inspires them to be positive. That’s something that people don’t get these days. You have to show that you can rise above adversity in order to gain respect. You shouldn’t be handed political office on a silver platter, or be handed anything for that matter.

This sort of fluffy campaign speech reminds me of the infamous “I knew Jack Kennedy, Jack Kennedy was a friend of mine. Senator, you are no Jack Kennedy” line that Senator Lloyd Bentsen delivered to then Vice-Presidential Candidate Dan Quayle in a 1988 debate. Too often, candidates think they can be Kennedy just by copying his rhetoric, when in fact Kennedy was more than just a team of speechwriters. He was a leader, and he wouldn’t let anyone tell him otherwise. Bentsen refused to let Quayle define himself: instead, Bentsen defined Quayle. Quayle’s righteous indignation to this comment is similar to that of Patrick’s and Drake’s responses.

Dukakis, who happens to be a big Patrick supporter, recently said, “This is an awful campaign...I’ve never seen anything like it. It makes Willie Horton look mild by comparison.” You see, Dukakis still doesn’t get it. He’s not a leader. And that’s why he’s been relegated to a historical footnote. Next time you see one of those so-called “negative” ads, turn them up. Then see if the attacked have that sort of leadership that inspired Americans more than 40 years ago.