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Column: The Problem with Scorched-Earth Campaigning



For The Washington Post
Friday, November 09, 2018

If America has any better writers than Cormac McCarthy, I haven’t found them.

McCarthy hasn’t written a political novel — goodness knows we don’t need any more — but indirectly, almost allegorically, maybe he has.

In his dark masterpiece No Country for Old Men, the protagonist is a longtime county sheriff in south Texas who watches what has always been a rough and tumble environment descend rather suddenly into levels of violence and brutality that even that weathered veteran cannot cope with, or even comprehend. Even though “bein’ sheriff was one of the best jobs you could have and bein’ a ex-sheriff was one of the worst,” by the book’s end, Sheriff Ed Tom Bell is ready to quit.

Many of today’s politicians must feel similarly. Viewing the savagery of the current public arena, others may decide to not even attempt a political career.

Just a decade ago, but in what now seems a parallel universe, one could run for public office without vilifying one’s adversary. In fact, you could even make a virtue of it.

Running in a primary as a first-time candidate, I wrote and recorded an ad nominally directed at my fellow party members, but really aimed at the larger electorate I hoped to be addressing in a general election. In the ad I said, “I’ve never run for public office before, and before you vote, you should know there are a few things I won’t do to win one, like compromise a fundamental principle, or attack anyone’s personal background, character or motives.”

For years after, I found a surefire applause line in a public appearance was to mention that, through three contested campaigns including that primary, we had never run a negative ad breaching that pledge. In the most irritating moments, I tried to bear in mind President Ronald Reagan’s admonition: “We have no enemies, only opponents.” How far away such a world seems today.

In the past few months we have just endured, candidates left and right heaped new levels of personal scorn on their opponents. Epithets such as “liar” and “thief,” which not long ago would have backfired on the person employing them, have become boringly common. Attachment of disparaging adjectives to the other person’s first name has migrated from middle-school yearbooks to the heart of our self-governance process.

Third-party interest groups and hired mercenaries, with no responsibility and probably little interest in the actual work of government between elections, are, if anything, even more vicious in their language and tactics.

In case words aren’t adequate weapons, sticks and stones have entered the repertoire, in the form of physical confrontation and intimidation in public spaces, or “doxing,” the release across the Internet of personal addresses and information.

Oh, I know, “politics isn’t beanbag,” and never has been. But, like Sheriff Bell’s Terrell County, it has never been like this.

The sheer obnoxiousness of scorched-earth campaigning is actually only its second-worst problem; worse is its high opportunity cost. A would-be elected official on the campaign trail will have no better chance, not even if gaining office, to communicate directly with the citizens he or she seeks to serve. To describe a better future and steps we could take to achieve it. To secure understanding and, given sufficient success, a “mandate” to pursue those steps. In other words, to campaign to govern, not merely to win.

Of course, that presumes you had some such purpose for running in the first place.

A former political practitioner gets frequent requests for advice from aspiring candidates. I’ve often suggested that the younger ones build some private-sector experience and credibility first, but have always encouraged ambition in men and women who have the new talent that a healthy democracy needs to refresh itself.

I’m more hesitant with that advice these days. When people of the finest character and best motives are nearly certain to be slimed and slandered, if not assaulted, for the sin of disagreement, it’s with mixed feelings that one cheers them on into the Coliseum.

Looking out on his own transformed arena, Sheriff Bell says, “I cant say that it’s even what you are willin to do ... I think it is more like what you are willin to become. And I think a man would have to put his soul at hazard. And I wont do that. I think now that maybe I never would.”

Unless and until a national revulsion with character-assassination politics requires some degree of civility and constructiveness in electoral competition, this will be no country for old men, or women.

And not much of one for young ones, either.

Mitch Daniels, a contributing columnist to The Washington Post, is president of Purdue University and a former governor of Indiana.