Must be the season of the witch.
With rare exceptions, I don’t really think people who run for political office start out with a strategy of “say anything or do anything to get elected.”
But, sadly, there aren’t many candidates who can resist the temptation. I truly believe there’s something about the process, a sort of delirium, that takes control of otherwise sane people and entices them to spread falsehoods, dig up potentially embarrassing items from the past or start ugly rumors — what’s known in these parts as mud-slinging — in an effort to discredit their political opponent.
When all the votes are counted and all the yard signs have been tucked away for another four years, I’d like to think many candidates who have engaged in dirty politics look back on their unsavory campaign behavior and are ashamed.
But in the heat of the battle, it seems, it’s no holds barred.
(These momentary lapses of reason, incidentally, do not apply to the likes of Richard Nixon, Herman Talmadge, William “Boss” Tweed, Rod Blagojavich or Mitch McConnell. When you have no scruples to begin with, no one expects anything approaching decency from you. These are just valueless humans whose lust for money and power preclude such niceties as decorum.)
I had lots of hope for the current local election cycle because almost every candidate I talked with early in his or her race vowed to “run a clean campaign” or to “run on my record” or to “stick to the issues.” As we’ve all seen and read, for many that just hasn’t been the case.
And when it comes to negative campaigning, when you’re the target of a ruthless opponent, it’s really tough to stick to the high road. When someone takes shots at you or your family or your ability to perform the duties of your elected office, it’s almost impossible not to respond in kind.
“He said what?! Why, that so-and-so. I wonder how he has the nerve to talk about me when he’s ...” And the war of words is on, fueled now by social media sites seemingly ideal for spreading rumor, gossip, innuendo and maybe even a few threads of truth for those who have some scruples left.
Dig a bit into the negative campaigns being waged by some local candidates, and you see a Carl Rove-like puppetmaster, usually someone behind the scenes who’s paying all the bills and thus feels empowered to call all the shots that his or her money is paying for. It’s not their name, after all, that people will remember when they try to wash away all the mud that’s been slung. It’s the candidate who will — and should — be held accountable.
What’s so astonishing about this inevitable but unsavory component of modern-day campaigning is that candidates don’t take into account the “return on investment” they get for their troubles. Sure, they get voters’ attention by “going negative” — Who doesn’t love to engage in a little gossip-spreading? — but that attention generally does not translate into votes.
Talk to anyone with even the tiniest bit of interest in the political process, and they will tell you that candidates who rely on a campaign of mudslinging — candidates who spend their time and money running down their opponent rather than extolling their own qualifications — are going to lose more votes by doing so than they’ll gain.
I can’t keep up with all the people who’ve told me during this campaign, “I was going to vote for so-and-so, but when he quit talking about his own plans and started slinging mud, I changed my mind and voted for his opponent.”
I guess it’s true what they say about people having to learn some lessons the hard way. It’s my guess there will be some local candidates who’ll be thinking about those lessons while they’re licking their wounds after Tuesday.
Email Metro Editor Carlton Fletcher at firstname.lastname@example.org.