Former presidents Bill Clinton and George W. Bush were in Utah last week for a business conference but used the occasion to lament the lack of civility in American politics. Their sentiments are shared by most Americans disheartened by the intense hostility and partisan antagonism in government and elections. This raises several questions:
Overall, is civility decreasing in American political debate, or is this a perception due to technology and more pervasive media outlets?
Pignanelli: "President John Adams is a hideous hermaphroditical character which has neither the force and firmness of a man, nor the gentleness and sensibility of a woman." — Advertisement in the Richmond Examiner authorized by the 1800 Thomas Jefferson presidential campaign. I applaud the noble efforts of organizations beseeching mutual respect in political deliberations and proud to be associated with a newspaper that is committed to this ideal. Unfortunately, American politics is a history of nasty wrestling matches. Other than George Washington, all our founding fathers excelled at character assassination.
There never was a "Golden Age" when candidates refrained from vicious personal attacks. For a large chunk of the 20th century, our news was controlled by a handful of newspaper and electronic organizations — that tolerated subtle slander (i.e., Lyndon Johnson's "Daisy" ad against Barry Goldwater). But with the arrival of cable television, blogging, Twitter, Facebook, etc., Americans are now receiving their news and opinions from a multitude of sources. Thus, the level of hostility in 2012 seems ubiquitous — as it was 200 years ago. We must seek to do better, but shrill politicking is our heritage.
Webb: At least our politicians are not killing each other in pistol duels, as has happened in this country's political history. Otherwise, not much has changed except that we are subjected to the barrage 24/7 thanks to our nonstop media consumption. In their days, Clinton and Bush were both victims and purveyors of a great deal of negative campaigning. We tend to agree with the negative stuff our side does while decrying what the other side does as unfair.
Will the 2012 presidential election be the most negative and hostile in modern history?
Pignanelli: The immediate discussion on negative tactics is focused on a television advertisement prepared by a pro-Obama super PAC that i
mplies Mitt Romney's business decisions killed an employee's wife. The commercial is clearly over the top. Yet, the ad was never authorized for paid broadcast. The video was placed on the web and was immediately referenced by hundreds of news and political websites. The viral success of this never-aired commercial will spawn a plague of outrageous films to be watched by millions of Americans, but never as actual television commercials. The irrelevant but vitriolic matters raised will include the religious affiliations of the candidates (President Barrack Obama and his controversial pastor Jeremiah Wright, Romney and Mormon history).
Webb: Usually, an incumbent president runs at least partly on his record, while the challenger points out the flaws and how he would do better. Because Obama can't run at all on his record, both campaigns this year are focused mostly on tearing the other guy down. The candidates will say they want to discuss "big issues" and "important policy," but it all gets drowned out in the attack ads. The news media decry the lack of substance, but speaking about the intricacies of Medicare won't land you on the evening news or the front page of the Washington Post. Making a harsh attack on your opponent will.
In Utah, we also sometimes practice negative politics, and the 2010 Utah election cycle — especially the GOP nomination for U.S. Senate and the gubernatorial general election — was an example of that. Will the closing months of the 2012 election be even worse?
Pignanelli: Utah Democrats learned in the governor's race two years ago that massive carpet-bombing of personal assaults against Republicans does not work. So the minority party will be positive and more focused on surviving the "Romney Tsunami." Conversely, the local GOP will strive to link all Democrats to Obama — technically not negative campaigning, but certainly not "high-road politics."
Webb: We will see the usual last-minute direct mail attacks in legislative and local races. Depending on late poll numbers, candidates may be tempted to go negative in the Fourth Congressional District (Jim Matheson vs. Mia Love) and the Salt Lake County mayoral race (Mark Crockett vs. Ben McAdams). Utah Democrats in big races, especially, sometimes have a difficult choice: Do I lose with dignity? Or do I hold my nose, go negative and perhaps have a small chance of winning?
If Love is behind Matheson in the last month, and if her campaign is being run, or heavily influenced, by outside consultants, don't be surprised to see tough negative advertising against Matheson. That's dangerous because Matheson is well liked. On the other hand, Matheson won't hesitate to go negative on Love if it appears she's on track to win.
Attacks on records, issues and affiliations are fair game in Utah. Personal attacks dealing with integrity and family usually backfire.
Republican LaVarr Webb is a political consultant and lobbyist. Previously he was policy deputy to former Gov. Mike Leavitt and Deseret News managing editor. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org. Democrat Frank Pignanelli is a Salt Lake attorney, lobbyist and political adviser. Pignanelli served 10 years in the Utah House of Representatives, six years as minority leader. His spouse, D'Arcy Dixon Pignanelli, is a state tax commissioner. Email: email@example.com.