As a particularly dispiriting election season comes to a close, the questions haunt: Is this the best that democracy can produce? Are we consigned to this forever? Is there a path to a better politics?
I have modest hopes for a better politics. I believe that the politics of the ceaseless rant may be running out of steam.
The ads have become monotonous. They are like ugly wallpaper to voters. After a while, you stop noticing.
Why wall-to-wall attack ads?
Political consultants tell clients they have go negative, and nastily so, because such ads work. But that is an untested proposition. In every contested race, both sides are mostly running nasty attack ads. So, someone running nasty attack ads is going to win. No candidate tries a different track.
The truth is that political consultants like to make those nasty attack ads. That’s the way they get their jollies.
And that is compounded by the rise of independent expenditure campaigns. These campaigns tend to operate in scores of political jurisdictions throughout the country. Cookie-cutter negative attack ads are the easiest things to produce that will have broad utility.
The question every campaign must ask
Now, I’m not pollyannaish. A candidate race comes down to: compared to whom? Campaign messages that communicate differences between candidates are not only inevitable, it’s how the democratic process is supposed to work.
And, obviously, those differences will be communicated in a way that is critical of the opponent.
Phoenix is tops in the nation for running political ads
But it can be about real differences, not distortions and hyperbole. And they can be conveyed in a way that informs and persuades. All ads don’t have to have ominous music, and the scary male voiceover or the alarmed female one.
As a former practitioner of the black arts of political consulting, I think a different kind of politics can be just as effective. Take the U.S. Senate race between Martha McSally and Kyrsten Sinema, for example.
What the McSally-Sinema race could’ve been
This race should have been a celebration of democracy.
Both candidates are well-qualified, knowledgeable, intelligent and articulate. They both have demonstrated the ability to get things done in a political and legislative setting.
Both have the potential to be highly effective senators for the state: Sinema following the example of Dennis DeConcini; McSally the example of Jon Kyl, with a bit of John McCain fighter pilot moxie thrown in.
This isn’t a choice of the lesser of two evils. It’s a choice of the greater of goods. And the choice should depend on whether you prefer to be governed from the center right with McSally or from the center left with Sinema.
There has been a bruising and disheartening campaign conducted between them. The state has been scorched with nasty attack ads. Sinema is a duplicitous radical. McSally is a scheming liar.
And it’s all been about the past. Sinema’s former years as a left-wing activist. McSally’s previous health care votes. There’s been hardly a word from either of them about what they would do if they actually got the job.
Mutual bombast didn’t move the needle
Yet all that bombast has seemed to have little to no effect. The race began as a tossup and is ending as a tossup. Nothing either candidate has said, or had said about her opponent, has moved the needle.
What if, instead, the candidates had actually engaged, reasonably fairly, on the issues, told voters what they wanted to accomplish if elected to the U.S. Senate?
Health care offers an excellent for instance. How do we create an individual health insurance market that is a better deal for more people while ensuring that those who are seriously or chronically sick have access to care?
McSally and Sinema would probably have different answers and approaches. It’s unclear which of their approaches the electorate would end up preferring.
Taking a chance on a better politics
So, why not take a chance on that debate, rather than descending to the you’re-a-radial, you’re-a-liar chants and taunts?
In 1980, apartment mogul Bill Schulz took on Barry Goldwater in the U.S. Senate race. As I recall, Schulz’s ad campaign consisted mostly of him looking into the camera and talking about who he was and what he wanted to do. He came very close to upending the Arizona icon.
The first task of advertising is to break through the clutter. Someday, a candidate with conviction is going to try to do that through a different kind of politics.
Reach Robb at firstname.lastname@example.org.