Dirt and the campaign
October 21, 2008 | 2:20 PMGary Orfield
The walk to the White House isn't a primrose path. Your opponents do not give up their dream of occupying the most powerful office in the world and turning history in a new direction without a fight. If they can't win fairly, they are surrounded by people suggesting how to win through mud wrestling. The two Democratic recent Democratic candidates who tried most clearly to play the game straight, Dukakis and Kerry, were repeatedly hit below the belt with attacks that seemed to them to be so absurd as to be unbelievable or irrelevant were hurt very badly and lost. People said they were too soft. Attack politics ruled again.
John McCain, when his primary campaign was derailed in South Carolina by George Bush in 2000 was hit by a barrage of attacks and whispering campaigns that left him defeated and the "straight talk express" at a deadend. No one rises in Chicago, where politics is a blood sport, as Obama did, without passing through brutal attacks.
One would have thought that both of these men, a good cut above the norm in politics, and sincerely devoted to their country, would have conducted a cleaner, better campaign. Certainly, this year there is an attentive public and truly urgent issues to talk about. Now, not far before the end, it seems like McCain has decided to drag out every fear tactic know to GOP politics — accusing his opponent of "socialism", fostering sexualization of preschoolers, suggestions that he and his supporters are answering back, though less intensely, not wanting to fall down the politics of attack rabbit hole, with the old Democratic standards — they will destroy your Medicare, etc. — though this is mixed with ringing visions of a better country.
There are two encouraging things about dirty politics in this election. For a change, the press is not sitting back and simply reporting ridiculous and untrue accusations as if they were serious and substantive charges. A number of the major news organizations are actually checking facts and reporting what they see, as are organizations that monitor the media, such as Media Matters. Major endorsements by newspapers, commentators and public figures deal with these issues.
If the press is going to be more than a passive, easily manipulated, transmission belt for lies and distortions, it is vitally important both to the profession of journalism and to the democracy, in which the press plays such an important role, that this trend continue.
It is much easier to put out a big lie than a complex truth so there must be a serious cost. We will only control this plague of dirty campaigning by proving that it doesn't work, that it has real costs. There are signs in the survey data that the public is moving in this direction by recognizing and rejecting dirty attacks and that could be one of the best developments of this campaign.
I hope that in the final days the candidates will run a campaign that they and the nation can be more proud of, that the loser can emerge with his reputation more intact than now seems likely, and that the country can be better prepared for the hard bipartisan decisions that will soon be required to solve long-neglected problems. The worst thing would be for the loser to sacrifice his reputation, lose both power and respect, and to leave the country he loves less prepared for the challenges it must face. That, sadly, seems to be the direction we're headed.
Dean of the UCLA School of Public Affairs and professor of political science.
Professor of education, law, political science and urban plannning.
Professor of urban planning, social welfare, and Asian American studies.
Professor of education and co-director of the Civil Rights Project/Proyecto Derechos Civiles at UCLA.
Professor of public policy.
Associate professor of public policy.
Associate professor of political science and director of the UCLA Center for the Study of Race, Ethnicity and Politics.
Assistant professor-in-residence of medicine.
Assistant professor of political science.
Assistant professor of communication studies.
Ph.D. candidate in political science.
Graduate student in political science.