Thank goodness this election is almost over. The toxicity of the campaign has turned off voters and undermined our future in ways that could be profound and possibly permanent. Let’s hope that the Democrats do not follow suit at their convention and use the same tactics employed by the GOP in Tampa.
Paul Ryan, the Vice Presidential nominee, introduced himself to the electorate last week with a fiery speech. Afterwards editorial pages, columnists, fact checkers, and even Fox News, accused him of distorting Obama’s record by taking “liberties” with the facts and in some cases advancing “down right lies.”
Individual testimonials to Romney’s character and a memorable film on the candidate’s life gave us a brief glimpse of a kinder and gentler ticket. Then without warning, cold water landed on the heads of the very people the campaign wanted to woo. The Republican effort to recalibrate their appeal to women and minorities—and introduce candidate Romney in a sympathetic light—was torpedoed on hello when Clint Eastwood strode out to the lectern to conduct an imaginary “interview “ with President Barack Obama. By evening’s end, the response to Eastwood’s presentation was so bad that spokespeople for the GOP said that Eastwood had ad-libbed.
Don’t believe it. The convention was tightly scripted, and people in decision-making positions had a pretty good idea of what they were going to get from the iconic actor. Even if occasionally freelancing, Eastwood’s performance was crude, distasteful and in many ways reprehensible. No one, for instance, has ever suggested, until Eastwood, that the President is profane. Despite this, the audience loved it– just as the RNC organizers knew they would. It turned the Tampa convention into a political coliseum. The cat calls, the wolf whistles, the laughter were like those of satiated spectators after a three-day diet of “red meat.”
It was not just Eastwood’s performance, but his very selection that proved to be a strategic disaster. His appearance worked at cross-purposes with the GOP’s aim. A man’s man, Eastwood is famous for his roles as a mucho macho guy with little sensitivity or emotional connection to women. In a stroke, the efforts of Ann Romney, and others, to soften the face of the party vanished in a puff of (gun) smoke.
The GOP convention principals—including the candidates—cannot distance themselves from Eastwood’s performance. They selected him, he delivered. Now responsibility for it must be acknowledged where it lies.
From a post-election perspective, let’s hope the campaign strategists of both parties have learned something from the affair. Nothing but short-term edge can be gained by misleading assertions and personal attacks. They undermine the most important tools our political leaders need for governing the country.
On March 9, 1954, in the midst of his first term as president, Dwight Eisenhower wrote businessman Paul Helms with his philosophy on the importance of avoiding personal attacks in the public arena.
“This is not namby-pamby,” Ike wrote. “It is certainly not Pollyannish-ish. It is just sheer common sense. A leader’s job is to get others to go along with him in the promotion of something. To do this he needs their goodwill. To destroy goodwill, it is only necessary to criticize publically. This creates in the criticized one a subconscious desire to ‘get even.’ Such effects can last a very long period.”
All candidates for presidential office know what they’re in for. But when standard bearers are gratuitously and viciously attacked it is often felt most strongly by their supporters. (And, many “undecideds” rightly feel disgusted and manipulated.) This poses a serious risk of broadening the impact of any negative and potentially enduring cycle.
This country can ill afford another near-catastrophe like that of the 2011 debt crisis, when our economy teetered on the abyss– thanks to partisan intransigence. Again, we are nearing another “budget cliff,” just after the presidential election. To avert another recession will require goodwill and cooperation from both sides of the aisle. It is time that the candidates put aside their cynical refusal to educate the public. In this precarious economic and security environment the near-term future of our country could well depend on our capacity to elevate our debate.
The sarcasm, the distortion of facts and the cynical personal attacks may well be among the things we remember about the Tampa gathering. Until now, the Democrats have also been far from blameless. That’s why Independents like me will be watching the Charlotte convention to see which road the Democrats’ decide to take—the high one or the low one. And they, too, will tell us who they are by the choices they make.