When I was a kid in Wisconsin, our family had a radio in the kitchen that was on every morning at breakfast. In the winter you’d hope to hear that it was a “snow day,” or that a strike had been called by school bus drivers sick of driving in the snow. The local NBC radio affiliate, WTMJ, had a morning guy who would read a “letter from a listener” each weekday. The letters usually commented on some event in the news, although every once a while someone would expand on the natural order of the universe, such as the urgent need to kill deer during deer hunting season.
Blowing more time dust off of Granddad’s nostalgia notebook… the first time I ever heard my own writing broadcasted was the morning they read my letter concerning the presidential election of 1964. The contest between Barry Goldwater and Lyndon Johnson had included a lot of negative TV ads and my pithy seventh-grade diatribe griped about that, closing with, “I’m not old enough to vote, but if I was I would like to know what I was voting for and not against.” Zing-o! Nailed it! Talk about an air-tight closer!
Just in case anybody is working on one of those “return to civility” essays, negative political ads are bigger than ever forty-six years later. Here’s a prediction: I’ll bet you’re already cooling to Meg Whitman because of her negative ads on Steve Poizner… and it’s only March. Add that to the sniping that went on between those two at the state GOP convention last weekend and you’ve got a tiresome level of unpleasantness that shows no signs of abating, from two adults who allege they want to be unifying leaders. And again, it’s only March.
The problem with these republicans chewing on each other in TV ads and in public is that it tamps down the general public’s appetite for state politics at a time when we should all be engaged. I would offer that there’s at least one more level of disappointment.
Whitman’s negative ads on Poizner feature what sounds like cheap circus- music, circus poster graphics and an announcer that leers over the rather slight innuendoes the ads serve up. The ads are numbered, as you would lessons for a child. They have the wide, “Know what I mean, Vern?” banality of dumb comedy. If the intellectual level of Whitman’s campaign ads indicates she presumes voters are too stupid to respond to reasoned debate and well-argued viewpoints in less obnoxious ads, then why are we to respect her as a potential leader for our state?
The notion that politics must function at some level as info-tainment is a trend many feel we’ll never turn around. One piece of evidence in that argument might be that, on top of everything else we all felt collectively about Obama, we thought that his campaign for President was well-produced. It had good production values. Contrast that to Howard Dean’s now infamous “scream” in Iowa, which many have attributed to a faulty mix of the audio in the room that night. Dean was in fact yelling over the exuberant voices of his supporters, but the audio mix was bad and we only heard Dean. In other words, bad production.
If we’re saying that political campaigns must execute like new fall TV shows eager to please us with strong characters and good writing then, like the shows we refuse to watch because they’re too dumb, we must reject the candidates who reach out to us with clearly condescending approaches. Which means that Whitman must pull her current ads and go with an approach that represents better taste and smarts, or she’ll risk being labeled as the candidate for folks that like their thinking done for them in childish carnival ads.
I know, I know… we’re the state that elected Arnold Schwarzenegger governor. But that puts too much weight on one election to say “game over” to reasoned debate and intelligent campaigning. Here’s where I go back to the point I was making in 1964, for those of you scrapbooking the big moments in my life: Can we please hear about the views and attributes of the candidate buying the ad? Negative ads reveal only one dimension of a candidate: Ruthlessness. Yes, you gotta be strong and assertive in political office. But think of those news videos of governments in other lands where the various representatives suddenly start bitch-slapping each other. That’s us?
The differences between the candidates for governor will be clear and well-defined. Jerry Brown has already conceded that his past is out there for anybody who wants to make negative ad mud, but I sense a certain ‘bring it on’ attitude there. There’s no way to know how gruesome the negative ads could get before it’s over, but right now Whitman is telling us less about herself and more about her attitude toward voter intelligence. I’m not out to help her, but she could certainly help herself by giving her primary campaign a tone other than that of some sarcastic spoof of “Sesame Street.” The opportunity to lead the eighth largest economy in the world should require, among other things, some demonstration of trust in the voter’s ability to process and reason on the issues. Meg, we don’t need everything to navigate as easily as, say, some website where you can sell the junk in your garage.
Mirror Contributing Writeropinion@smmirror.com