Our malignant politics

Politics has always been a particularly dirty, brutal business. Even so, it seems every year we hear pundits, politicians and voters complain that this may in fact be the “dirtiest” year ever.

But for all those people who look at the state of our discourse in 2012 America and hang their head in shame, it would be instructive to look back in time and realize that things were, for the most part, a great deal worse the further back in time we look.

We’ve been conditioned to believe that the past was an era of great statesmen, respectfully disagreeing with one another over spirited and high-minded debates of great issues. Civility, we think, is the hallmark of this politically romantic era.

Well, maybe not. Enter Thomas Jefferson in the election of 1800:

“John Adams is a blind, bald, crippled toothless man,” said Jefferson. He went on to accuse Adams of importing mistresses from Europe and attempting to marry one of his sons to a daughter of King George (inflaming suspicions that Adams was a monarchist).

Jefferson’s campaign went on to accuse Adams of having a “hideous hermaphroditical character, which has neither the force and firmness of a man, nor the gentleness and sensibility of a woman.”

The Adams campaign’s response? “[Jefferson] is a mean-spirited, low-lived fellow, the son of a half-breed Indian squaw, sired by a Virginia mulatto father.”

It got worse. A newspaper affiliated with Adams wrote that if Jefferson were to become president, “Murder, robbery, rape, adultery and incest will be openly taught and practiced, the air will be rent with the cries of the distressed, the soil will be soaked with blood and the nation black with crimes.”

This was hardly exclusive to this one election. Indeed, this was standard practice in American politics from the beginning.

In the 1872 election, Horace Greely accused Ulysses S. Grant’s administration of bringing forth a “burning lava of seething corruption, a foul despotism.”

Or how about the election of 1884, featuring none other than Maine’s own James G. Blaine? Blaine’s supporters accused Grover Cleveland of fathering a child out of wedlock, and used to hound him at campaign stops by shouting, “Ma, Ma, Where’s My Pa?”

Cleveland, for his part, accused Blaine (without evidence) of corruption and sexual scandals. His supporters had their own chant to greet their opponent, “Blaine! Blaine! James G. Blaine! The continental liar from the state of Maine!”

I could go on endlessly, because there is no shortage of horrendously evil things said about candidates every year. So dirty politics is nothing new, and if anything, it has gotten less personal and less pervasive as we have gone along. It might not seem that way, but it’s true.

That said, even by the standards of the muddy politics of the 1800s, one ad this year in particular stands out as far and away out of bounds.

An ad recently put out by Priorities USA, President Barack Obama’s Super PAC, essentially accused Mitt Romney of murder. In it, a retired steel-worker effectively blames Romney for the death of his wife from cancer, because Bain was forced to close the GST Steel plant in 2001, forcing him to lose his health insurance.

The aim of the ad, which has thankfully backfired, is to make voters think that Romney is a cold, callous man who doesn’t care about people and is responsible for a woman’s death. Nevermind that Romney stopped day-to-day oversight at Bain Capital in 1999, or that the man’s wife continued to have health insurance through her own employer from that point through 2003 or that she was diagnosed with cancer in 2006.

There’s negative campaigning, and then there is accusing a candidate of killing someone. The good news is that the ad has been thoroughly fact-checked by CNN and widely rejected by just about everyone. But its very existence is the problem.

Like most, I would prefer our debates to be substantive, honest and free of ad hominem attacks. Elections are at their best when they are about big ideas and are eloquently framed as such by candidates. But, I’m a realist and know that mudslinging is just human nature and that negativity in politics is simply part of the equation.

But even if we are to make peace with the notion of negative campaigning, there are still limits beyond which we should not tolerate. Slime like the ad from Priorities USA should never be made. Ever.

Matthew Gagnon

About Matthew Gagnon

Matthew Gagnon, of Yarmouth, is the Chief Executive Officer of the Maine Heritage Policy Center, a free market policy think tank based in Portland. Prior to Maine Heritage, he served as a senior strategist for the Republican Governors Association in Washington, D.C. Originally from Hampden, he has been involved with Maine politics for more than a decade.