Flynn's Harp: Holding candidates accountable for attack ads (1-4-12)
Posted on 1/4/2012 by Mike Flynn
You didn’t need to be a fan of Newt Gingrich to feel bad for the guy because of all the political dirt dumped on him during the Iowa-caucuses campaign. And you didn’t need to be a foe of Mitt Romney, who fared well in Iowa Tuesday, to find his avoidance of responsibility for the deluge of attack ads aimed at Gingrich distasteful.
And you don’t need to be a schooled political observer to sense that the Iowa mess was only the undesirable opening salvo of what is likely to be a dirt-encrusted presidential campaign over the coming months, particularly once we enter the general-election phase.
So to the electoral masses, Iowa likely brought a new level of disgust with the way politics has come to be defined, and the hunger for something, and someones, different.
As far as national-level politics goes, we can’t do much other than try to tune out the flood of campaign diatribe. But perhaps influentials of both parties in Washington State, who desire a more refreshing odor from the political campaigns at the state level, can force a cleaner conduct on candidates in the most important Washington State race this year.
We’re referring, of course, to the race for Washington governor, where Republican Atty. Gen. Rob McKenna and Congressman Jay Inslee, a Democrat, face free rides to their parties’ nominations to engage each other in the November General Election. Gov. Chris Gregoire isn’t running for re-election and possible competitors for either party’s nomination have been dissuaded from fouling the political fray with competition.
So the looming one-on-one battle in this state threatens to unfold as a long and tedious campaign marked by extensive negative messaging. That’s an eventuality that none of the many citizens already disgusted with the national political process should need to endure in Washington.
The way attack advertising has evolved is that it’s carried out by organizations supportive of, but not directly tied to, a candidate. That allows the candidates to vow that they are going to wage a clean campaign knowing that such supporting organizations will carry the trash.
And the media outlets have done poorly in pressing candidates to take a position of agreeing with or disavowing negative comments about their opponents. It’s not that difficult to say to a candidate at a press conference: “we know this was not a message directly from your campaign organization, but you must agree or disagree with it.”
Perhaps the simplest expectation is one the iconic William Rucklshaus, in a must-read op-ed piece in Sunday’s Seattle Times, listed among the things we need to insist on from our political candidates: “Tell us why we should vote for you, not what’s wrong with your opponent.”
The challenge of asking candidates to step out of the mud hole in which many now operate during campaigns is that people other than the candidates increasingly are the conveyors of negative messages while the candidates themselves pretend they’re cloaked in campaign purity.
That problem is growing worse as social media becomes more pervasive. And, in fact, with no way to control the over-the-top negativity, frequently false, of bloggers and the like, any idea for positive change in how candidates campaign may be a waste of time.
Nevertheless, here’s a New Year idea that could at least minimize the negative campaigning that many fear may lie ahead in the Washington governor’s race. And it’s an idea that only one of the candidates needs to endorse since one doing so would pretty much force the other to also agree to go along.
The idea is that the gubernatorial candidates agree that when any negative advertising is aired or disseminated, they will say either that they say either “I agree with that,” or “I don’t agree with that.” No responses like “I don’t really have an opinion on that” should be left unchallenged.
This isn’t to elicit a promise to run a clean campaign. Every candidate promises that now. Rather it’s pressing for a promise from each candidate to take responsibility for all messaging on their behalf.
Such a small step could make negative campaigning more uncomfortable for candidates. And that would represent a long step toward Ruckelshaus’ vision of candidates spending time talking about themselves rather than their opponents.