Jay Evensen: Nasty politics: a strategy that really works

Published: Thursday, March 1 2012 12:00 a.m. MST

If you live on the West coast and you need a new refrigerator or other appliance, hang tight. Help — most likely with a trendily "distressed" look to it — might be on the way.

When the magnitude 9.0 earthquake and resulting tsunami hit Japan a year ago, it sucked tens of millions of tons of debris into the ocean. Now, officials with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration say parts of the debris may reach the Oregon, Washington, Canadian and Alaskan coasts sometime between a year from now and March 2014.

Already, CBS news reports, a Russian training ship spotted a refrigerator, a television and other appliances west of Hawaii. It may take awhile, but that's what you get for not ordering with expedited delivery.

Meanwhile, methinks a lesson lurks in those waters. While the debris stream bobs along the currents, today's GOP presidential candidates may come to regret the tsunami of negativism they are blowing around in an effort to win the nomination. Some of those verbal refrigerators are liable to get swept up by political currents and bop them in the head later on.

And yet, absent such a tsunami, fair weather voters aren't likely to pay attention. Worse, the slightest little breeze could throw them around.

The writer of a recent letter to the editor in this newspaper pleaded with the four remaining candidates to cut out all the mudslinging. "Rather," he wrote, "each should publicize their own political beliefs, plus the positive things they can contribute to the office of president."

Those are nice, high-minded sentiments. To his credit, the writer didn't call for a return to some halcyon, bygone era, or, as is popular these days, to the way the Founding Fathers did things.

If you want a laugh wrapped in an appropriate history lesson, go to YouTube and search for Reason.tv's "Attack Ads, Circa 1800." You will find an interesting rendition of what a television political ad might have looked like that year, when incumbent John Adams faced Thomas Jefferson.

A sampling: Jefferson called Adams, "blind, bald, crippled and toothless" and accused him of wanting to start a war with France. Adams, for his part, said a Jefferson victory would mean "murder, adultery, rape, incest and robbery" would be openly taught and practiced.

Granted, the two of them didn't actually say those things. They let others say them on their behalf, sort of like what Super PACs do today. Jefferson hired a guy named James Callendar to do most of the dirty work. That backfired a few years later when Callendar, who slung mud without much regard for loyalty, felt he had been slighted by Jefferson and decided to accuse the president of having an affair with the slave Sally Hemmings, a story that still registers a fair amount of hits on Google. Some debris never sinks, which is what today's Republican field may learn.

Dean Michael Mezey, a political science professor at DePaul University, has said what high-powered candidated already know: going negative works.

"... what negative advertising does is get your supporters committed and excited," he was quoted as saying by the web site completecampaigns.com. "Those who are indifferent are so turned off that they are less likely to vote, as are people who are for the other candidate — so not only does it help you, but it depresses turnout."

That's not exactly the kind of patriotic altruism a lot of people like to ascribe to their favorite candidate. But a mostly apathetic electorate has to bear some blame for this.

Years ago, when I was editor of my college newspaper, a candidate for student-body president asked if I would run his campaign profile upside down on a page that profiled all the candidates. I wouldn't do it, but I understood why he made the request. It's hard to stand out on your good ideas alone.

That's true even if a lot of us are sick of wading through all the storm-tossed debris. Short of getting everyone to look beyond slogans, it isn't going to change.

Jay Evensen is associate editor of the Deseret News editorial page. Email him at even@desnews.com. For more content, visit his website, www.jayevensen.com.

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