Commentary: Democrats' negative strategy robs voters of meaningful debate
This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, Oct. 8, 2010 - A recent article in the New York Times reported that "Democratic candidates across the country are opening a fierce offensive of negative advertisements against Republicans, using lawsuits...and even divorce proceedings to try to discredit their opponents and save their congressional majority." The article added that the purpose of the personal attacks is to "avoid having races become a national referendum on the performance of President Obama and his party."
This national strategy of personal attack is being employed in Robin Carnahan's campaign for Missouri's open seat in the U.S. Senate. Her television and radio advertising has been exclusively and scurrilously negative, accusing Roy Blunt not of wrongheadedness on issues but of criminal acts of corruption. At the same time, the ads have avoided even a hint of her own position on any matter of public policy. It could be that I have missed something she may have said, but as a close observer of Missouri politics, I doubt it. My observation is that, with less than four weeks remaining before the election, she has not brought to the public's attention any thought on any issue that will be before Congress.
The result of such a relentless campaign of personal attacks was predictable. According to a Fox News poll, she has driven Roy Blunt's unfavorable rating to 44 percent while his favorable rating is 41 percent. At the same time, she has gained little in head to head polling and her own negative rating is 52 percent. Undoubtedly, her own negatives result partly from her identification with an unpopular president, but an old political adage bears repeating: The candidate who throws mud loses ground.
It's a wonder that any normal person would want to run for elective office if he or she knew that months of commercials would allege humiliating or, in Blunt's case, criminal conduct. But, beyond warning citizens away from public life, and beyond nauseating people who have any sense of common decency, there's a more important reason an exclusive focus on personal attack ill serves the common good: It deprives the electorate of an informed decision about the course of the country. That is what an election is for, and that is what the national strategy of the Democratic Party seeks to avoid.
The fundamental decision that should be before the electorate concerns the appropriate power, weight and cost of the federal government. It is a worthy subject for serious debate, one that has roots extending back in American history to the controversy between Alexander Hamilton and Thomas Jefferson. That historic debate was not joined in the last presidential election. During his own campaign, Barack Obama did not clearly define what he meant by "change," so many voters thought he was speaking about a change in the tone of Washington and the hope of bringing America together in a new, post-partisan era.
It was only after his election that it became clear that he had a more substantive change in mind, a major shift in the relationship of the federal government to the rest of the country. So, as president, he put in place a massive new stimulus scheme, much of which was intended for favored programs such as Pell grants for education, broadband access and electronic medical records which, however worthy, had little or nothing to do with job creation.
The federal government took ownership of an automobile company, it appointed a "car czar" to guide the future of that industry and a "pay czar" to determine compensation for corporate executives. The president named Joe Biden "sheriff" to police how state and local governments were spending stimulus money. The president succeeded in getting Congress to enact sweeping controls of the health-care sector and the health-insurance industry. He set in motion extensive regulation of the financial industry, and he championed an increase in the marginal tax rate as well as taxes on capital gains and dividends. Some of this may be good or bad depending on one's perspective.
All of it had the common purpose of expanding the power, weight and cost of the federal government. All of it is, and should be, debatable. All of it should be clearly presented to the American people for ratification or rejection. All of it is being systematically avoided by Democratic candidates in furtherance of a political strategy.
Politics is a place for vigorous advocacy and the energetic clash of opinions. A candidate who is combative, who draws sharp contrasts and who attacks an opponent's positions and record is not cause for objection. To disagree on principles doesn't mean that one side is good and the other side is evil. It only means that two candidates disagree. That's America. In this country we get to disagree about public policy, and open disagreement between candidates leads to informed voters.
But open disagreement is not happening in Missouri's Senate election. Robin Carnahan's campaign has taken us in the opposite direction. She has refused to advocate positions; she has ducked issues; and she has deliberately obfuscated the choice that should belong to the voters.
With rapidly mounting national debt and increasing dependence on borrowing from China, many people have rightly said that America's future is in the balance. That future should be in the hands of the people. With more than three weeks to go before the election, there is still time to make it so. There is still time for a clear elucidation of the issues that voters have the right to decide.
John C. Danforth, a Republican, is a former U.S. senator from Missouri.