Fear and smear on campaign trail

By Published on .

Here's what it's come to:

One of the candidates for the presidency is running ads to terrify senior citizens with naked lies about Social Security. He's pandering to workers about saving jobs with a "plan" that by expert consensus would have a negligible effect. He is exploiting, for the cheapest political advantage, the sexuality of an opponent's child. And he's blaming his foe for the flu.

He's the one we're voting for.

That's John Kerry, liar. George W. Bush, the president of the United States, is worse.

The president's advertising has misrepresented Kerry's record and stated positions on taxation, defense and intelligence spending, health care and the Iraq war. He has engaged in ad hominem attacks based on gross distortions of Kerry's votes and statements. He has trafficked in fear, portraying the Democrat-without any factual basis-as soft on terrorism, a sheep to be devoured by wolves.

And his proxies have scurrilously accused the decorated Vietnam veteran of treason. Kerry's crime, in the view of the Swiftboat Veterans for Truth? Criticizing U.S. war policy in wartime. That act, however, is not called treason. It is called dissent, which the founders established as a pillar of democracy.

A telling misunderstanding. Political speech, too, is intended to be a pillar of democracy. But this election season once again proves the pillar to be crumbling, undermined by cynicism, deceit and, as it turns out, a tragic abuse of the power of advertising.

"Now," the narrator declares in a recent Kerry-Edwards spot, "Bush has a plan that cuts Social Security benefits by 30 to 45%. The real Bush Agenda? Cutting Social Security."

Quite alarming, were it true. In fact, Bush has proposed no such plan, and has vowed not to cut benefits, and curbs on benefit growth are decades away. Which John Kerry well understands. Honesty, however, does not seem to be a presidential prerequisite.

twisted lies

"Some people have wacky ideas," opens a Bush ad, filled with archival images of crackpot inventions. "Like taxing gasoline more so people drive less. That's John Kerry. He supported a 50¢ a gallon gas tax. ... Raising taxes is a habit of Kerry's. He supported higher gasoline taxes 11 times. Maybe John Kerry just doesn't understand what his ideas mean to the rest of us."

Or maybe the president doesn't understand what 11 means. Nine of those 11, according to FactCheck.org, were either procedural votes on the very same 4.3¢ per gallon increase or on subsequent attempts to repeal it. One was a later vote to leave all existing gas taxes unchanged. And one was his 50¢ proposal-something Kerry mentioned exactly once, 10 years ago, in a newspaper article. Someone, however, did recently propose such a wacky idea: Gregory Mankiw, now chairman of the president's council of economic advisors.

All of which is to say, no matter how many constituent facts it may be built upon, these intentional deceptions are by definition lies, twisted into shape by Washington consultants operating with the impunity of the First Amendment to trade in fear and smear.

Image: a body resting in a coffin, for the viewing, and a woman approaching. She is a look-alike for Republican Congresswoman Marilyn Musgrave. The narrator announces that, when she was a state legislator, Musgrave voted for a bill that would have permitted nursing homes to bill for patient costs after death.

Whereupon the look-alike removes the dead man's jewelry. In the interest of good taste, she does not cut open the deceased and eat his organs.

The message was created last month by a supposedly independent 527 organization called Colorado Families First allied with Democratic challenger Stan Matsunaka in Colorado's fourth Congressional district. Meanwhile, in North Carolina, the GOP ran an ad targeting Democratic legislative candidate Julia Boseman, a lesbian, charging she'd pursue a "homosexual agenda." So, yes, sleazy character assassination is an equal-opportunity phenomenon.

And, yes, it's appalling. But it's not just that advertising is abused for political gain. What's most appalling is how the consultants have squandered advertising's true power. Here's a quote: "Politicians have become simple commodities to be flogged on the television like soap or toothpaste." Those happen to be the words of West Virginia Supreme Court Justice Richard Neely in a 1992 opinion, articulating the conventional wisdom.

Sigh. If only politicians were flogged like toothpaste.

For one thing, consumer marketers have the legal obligation to tell the truth. Claim your oatmeal lowers cholesterol, and prepare for a regulatory or judicial onslaught. Claim a candidate is a traitor or grave robber and prepare for ... no consequences whatsoever. Yet the consultants who unleash such outrages loudly and proudly disdain consumer advertising's notions of brand-building-a sentiment that resonates because "branding" sounds so trivial, the supremacy of style over substance. It just happens not to be true.

When done properly, branding represents the magical convergence of recognition and meaning. Brands stand for something. Pepsi stands for youth. Marlboro stands for rugged individualism. DeBeers diamonds are forever. This may be shorthand, but it is shorthand worth several trillion dollars. Likewise, successful presidential candidates have branded themselves for the past 60 years. Eisenhower was familiar, trustworthy and just likable. Kennedy meant youthful vigor. Johnson stole a page from DuPont; his Great Society meant better living through government. Nixon meant experience. Carter was a fresh face. Even Dubya was compassionate conservatism.

Consider two of the greatest presidential ads ever made. One was for Arkansas Gov. Bill Clinton, taking us back to his childhood in the felicitously named Hope, Ark., and portraying a young, community-minded man who meets President Kennedy and triggers his own political destiny.

forces of reaction

The other was Hal Riney's 1984 masterpiece, "Morning in America," which neutralized the scandal of Iran-Contra and the fallout of Reaganomics by promulgating a sense of renewed spirit and optimism.

Establishing such brand image, of course, requires the sort of consistency modern campaigns are often allergic to. Political consultants are the forces of reaction; they go into a battleground state, do research-or more likely un-research, such as focus groups, which do not generate data but rather random feelings that are utterly unprojectible against the population-and they use those "results" to alter their message every week, if not every day.

In the waning weeks of the present campaign, John Kerry has been hammering on the George Bush record and offering a Carteresque "fresh start," but for most of the race didn't so much flip-flop as bounce wildly around. Kerry ads variously depicted a courageous veteran, health-care maven, hunter and hockey player, family man and selfless champion of the middle class. This while Bush indefatigably portrayed the Democrat as a wishy-washy tax-raising liberal, and himself as a strong leader who will protect us from evil-a consistent image that made all the more powerful 2004's leading candidate for "Morning in America" status.

The ad, from the 527 group Progress for America, is called "Ashley's Story," about a teen who lost her mom on 9/11. On the stump in Ohio, Bush embraced the girl and said, "I know that's hard. Are you all right?"

collateral damage

"All he wants to do," we see Ashley say now, "is make sure that I'm safe, that I'm OK." Suddenly Bush the Bungler is Dear Leader, who can hug us all and tell us everything's OK.

Not to suggest that political advertising must be giddily optimistic and cloyingly sweet and kind to all creatures great and small. Negative advertising, fairly presented, is not only fair game but obviously critical to the campaign process. Kerry has done reasonably well delineating Bush's failures in Iraq while simultaneously putting forth his own strategy, such that it is. And with some justification, Bush has successfully portrayed Kerry as a flip-flopper; the "Windsurfing" ad, which characterized Kerry as someone who changes direction with the political wind, was especially stinging.

When legitimate comparisons devolve into ridicule, however, the collateral damage is widespread. Such travesties as LBJ's infamous "Daisy" and George H.W. Bush's race-baiting "Willie Horton" have led to the assumption that attack ads work. But mainly they do not.

According to research by the Annenberg School for Communications, attack advertising actually reduces the sponsoring candidate's share of the vote, and suppresses turnout among undecided voters. Correlation isn't necessarily causation, but let's look at voter turnout. Ah. It has plummeted, from 63% of eligible voters in the 1960 presidential election to 51% in 2000-and 36.4% in the off-year election of 2002.

In other words, "Windsurfing" and "Swiftboats" and corpses and gay-bashing do more harm than good-to the targets, to the assailants and to democracy itself.

In 2004, both presidential candidates surely have a lot to answer for. Both have perpetuated the toxic status quo, failing to see its futility, failing to credit its consequences and, most of all, failing the American people.

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