On That “Godless” Ad

A reader writes in about that Elizabeth Dole “Godless” ad which you can watch here. It is without question the most controversial and discussed ad of this cycle.

First, I will share the reader’s email:

I just saw the [Dole "Godless"] spot …and I find it pretty offensive. Why should belief in god be a qualification to serve in the US Senate? Dole defends herself by saying that she’s not calling her opponent “godless” but actually critiquing her opponent for hanging out with “godless” folks. This whole idea of “since you have, at one time or another, associated with [insert controversial person or group here] you are therefore [insert whichever scary label fits]” is just stupid. But, what Dole is doing is worse. Injecting such a polarizing subject as religion and belief in God into this election is just wrong. Forget that our constitution has that whole separation of church and state thing, why the hell is someone’s belief relevant? How would that affect her votes on foreign policy, budgets, economic policy?

The reader raises several important issues, and I am happy to share my thoughts, one issue at a time.

First, it should go without saying that Dole has every right to run this ad, and the reader similarly has every right to be offended. Or to agree with it. I mean, it’s democracy, folks. What would the alternative be? Set up some commission to decide which ads are fair and which ads are unfair? Not only would that be impossible to fairly administer, it likely also would be unconstitutional.

The next issue the reader raises is whether the candidate’s faith should be an issue. Well, I myself would have no trouble supporting a Christian or Jew or Muslim or Sikh or Buddhist or Atheist provided that person shares my views on the issues which are most important to me. Again, that whole democracy thing- we each get to make up our own minds. Dole is insinuating that her opponent will line up with people who want to take “In God We Trust” off the dollar bill and “one nation under God” out of the Pledge of Allegiance. Putting aside the question of whether Dole has any basis for that insinuation, as a general matter if those issues are important to a voter, whichever side the voter is on, he or she has a right to take that into account when voting.

As for guilt by association, well that is a game which everybody plays. And again, so be it. Barack Obama is probably going to win this election in large part due to his successful attempt to associate John McCain with George Bush. And if I were Obama, I would have done the exact same thing. Bush is incredibly unpopular, McCain has often (but not always) supported Bush, so it’s perfectly fair for Obama to do this. In 1994, Republicans won both houses of Congress by running ads all over America associating Democratic candidates with the then-unpopular Bill Clinton.

Guilt by association does not always work. But everyone tries to do it. Hillary Clinton attacked Barack Obama for his association with (in her words) “that slumlord Rezko.” In some senate races now, Democrats are attacking Republicans for their association with the recently-convicted Ted Stevens. It cuts both ways– unless you’re a hypocrite like Frank Rich of the New York Times, who savaged Mitt Romney for his association with the Mormon Church, then sang a rather different tune when the Jeremiah Wright tapes came out.

I can remember Mario Cuomo’s unsuccessful 1994 re-election bid, when his whole campaign was based on trying to link his then-largely-unknown opponent George Pataki to the unpopular Al D’Amato. And I’m old enough to remember Walter Mondale’s vain attempt to link Ronald Reagan to Jerry Falwell. “Guilt by association” always was, and always will be. A liberal voter might reject a candidate for his association with the NRA, a conservative voter might reject a candidate for her association with the ACLU- and as Stuart Smalley would say, “that’s okay.”

The reader ends by asking how the whole religion issue would affect a candidate’s policy positions on things like the economy or foreign affairs. Well, a person’s religious views might not impact how they vote on tax cuts or free trade. But they could impact how the candidate votes on social issues like school prayer, abortion, or gay marriage, and if those issues matter to a person, that person has every right to consider where the candidates stand.

I’m not in North Carolina, and have no idea how the Dole thing will play out. To me, for what it’s worth, it looks like a desperation play that could well backfire, because the link between the candidate and the “Godless American Pac” is at best a tenuous one, and the ad makes Dole look nasty. The winning candidates know how to attack while still finding a way to seem likable.

In the end, the people get to decide. Is there any other way?

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