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Commentary: Political commercials crash; the state gets burned

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, Oct. 10, 2010 - Paul Simon's take on political commercials bears revisiting as yet another niagara of negativism spews from our television sets into our living rooms and dens. How many people would board planes, this extraordinary public servant would ask rhetorically, if airlines sponsored commercials spotlighting the crashes of their competitors?

Not surprisingly, the man chosen next month to lead our deficit-sapped, economically anemic state for the next four years likely will emerge from the crucible of battle with more Illinoisans doubting his credentials than embracing them. So, he almost certainly will face the daunting challenges of governing us in these most trying of times without the credibility and the mandate that optimize the chances for success.

In the most recent poll conducted for the Chicago Tribune by Market Shares Corp., 34 percent of respondents viewed Gov. Pat Quinn favorably and 39 percent unfavorably. His Republican challenger, State Sen. Bill Brady, posted a 30-29 score that could well flip and significantly erode under an escalating onslaught of attack ads in an anti-establishment environment.

It has been two decades since the Republican and Democratic candidates both survived a gubernatorial skirmish with solidly positive marks. Despite a spirited, scrappy campaign in which the two exchanged shots over the airwaves, Secretary of State Jim Edgar was perceived favorably by 55 percent and unfavorably by only 23 percent in the Tribune poll preceding his narrow 1990 victory over Attorney General Neil Hartigan, who registered at 42-32.

Edgar's standing after a campaign in which he advocated retaining an income tax surcharge for education - a position that Hartigan attacked - allowed him to muster the necessary revenues as well as pare spending by hundreds of millions of dollars to balance an out-of-whack budget.

Republican George Ryan assumed the governorship eight years later with a 50-28 rating before the whiff of corruption in his stewardship as secretary of state became a gagging stench. Rod Blagojevich, a relative unknown, enjoyed a 45-33 rating in 2002 as he trotted past Attorney General Jim Ryan, laden with the political carcass of his scandalized namesake. But Blagojevich and his foe, Judy Topinka, each were perceived in 2006 more unfavorably than favorably after the vulnerable but cash-flush governor unleashed a fusillade of character-assassinating commercials that convinced voters she was goofy and less trustworthy even though they had elected her thrice as state treasurer.

Now we find ourselves on the threshold of still another election where the victor could well dismay more than delight. Neither Quinn nor Brady inspires confidence or stirs excitement among most folks who follow state government closely.

Quinn, an enterprising populist as an outsider, has become a bumbling chief executive as the most visible insider. Brady, who lacked luster as a lawmaker, lacks gravitas as a gubernatorial candidate. They refuse to offer workable blueprints for escaping the state's smothering deficit, prompting many of us to decipher whether they are evasive or incompetent or both, and their "neither of the above" opponents are even less capable of governing effectively.

In other words, we cannot blame the dissatisfaction with our choices entirely on the cutting commercials. But the spots have become nastier, more prevalent, costlier and arguably more influential through the years. Citizens find them repugnant but often persuasive. Politicians resort to them even though they degrade the public service they supposedly prize. Major interest groups gain more clout by bankrolling them. Legislators cower from casting responsible votes that could become fodder for the slashing ads that have contributed mightily to State House pandering and paralysis.

As planes full of passengers soar, our state sinks into fiscal quicksand. Paul Simon saw it coming.

Mike Lawrence, former reporter, press secretary for then-Gov. Jim Edgar and director of the Paul Simon Public Policy Institute at Southern Illinois University, is retired. He writes a twice-monthly column. 

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