Archive for November, 2008

Dissent of the Day

A reader responds to my earlier post on that Elizabeth Dole “Godless” Ad.

I am all in favor of “let the voters decide” concept of democracy, but there comes a time when allegations are so beyond the pale that they must be condemned, as a way of providing full information to the voters so that they can decide. I would not advocate censoring Elizabeth Dole’s commercials – she has a First Amendment to say anything she wants. But, it is incumbent on all right-thinking people to condemn misleading attacks. I think that is what is happening with Dole’s ad, which is why it is back-firing.

The problem is when people do what you did, which is to say there’s nothing wrong with her attack because “guilt-by-association” attacks are common and accepted in politics, and then equate it with Obama attempting to link McCain to Bush, or something else that is more in the center of honest political discourse. That gives tacit approval to attacks that should be condemned.

Linking McCain to Bush suggests that he will follow Bush policies. There is empirical evidence to support this, and agree or disagree with the premise, it is certainly within the bounds of fair argument. The same would be true of linking Obama to Pelosi or anyone else with whom he shares a political point of view, or even a similarity on a specific issue. Concededly, it’s short-hand, but it’s one that’s fair, like labeling someone a liberal or a conservative, even though the label may not correctly capture that person’s position with respect to every issue.

By contrast, the Dole “Godless Ad” or McCain/Palin’s attempts to tie Obama to William Ayers crosses the line because the ad is designed not to appeal to rationale thought, but to prejudices. In the Dole case, from my understanding of the facts, the Godless American Pac was one of 40 co-sponsors of an event that was attended by her opponent, Kay Hagen, and Hagen is clearly a believer in God (she’s a former Sunday School teacher). The Dole campaign suggests that Hagen promised something to the Pac, and then the cry of “There’s No God” suggests that she’s the speaker (otherwise, what does it mean?). Dole claims that the issue is the character or integrity of a person who would attend a fundraiser in which one of the sponsors has views she disagrees with – and, if that were the point of the ad, it would be fair. However, the ad doesn’t portray the issue that way. Rather, the ad goes out of its way to make it appear – wrongly – that Hagen is anti-God and has made promises to an anti-God organization, neither of which is true.

The same misleading aspect is at the core of the McCain/Palin efforts to link Obama to William Ayers. If the issue they were pushing was that Obama should have been more careful about vetting the people who held fundraisers that he attended many years ago, and that kind of “carelessness” should be considered by voters, it would be fair game, although a rather insignificant point, especially if it only happened that once and was years ago. However, the clear point of the McCain/Palin attacks is to portray Obama as sympathetic to a terrorist agenda. That’s why McCain/Palin have pushed the boundaries with a battle-cry that Obama “pals around” with terrorists. That’s a much different charge than that he fails to check out people who hold fundraisers that he attends.

When the issue is really dissected, it shows that all “guilt by association” attacks are not created equal. Most people would agree that it’s fair to wonder whether McCain would be Bush III or whether Obama would be a very liberal President and further Pelosi’s agenda. That’s why those charges are legitimate, even if they can be debunked by examples that show McCain bucking Bush or Obama being more conservative than Pelosi on a certain issue. But few would agree that Obama is sympathetic to terrorists, or that Hagen is going to pursue an anti-God agenda as Senator, and when a candidate tries to mislead the electorate, it is important to condemn the attack as untrue.

Comments

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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