That’s how my friend, conservative political blogger Robert Stacy McCain, characterizes the Republican Party’s 2012 presidential primary race to date.
Note that McCain doesn’t argue that the campaign is unusually vitriolic. He’s smarter than that; thus far it has actually been quite pedestrian.
The “vulture capitalism” barbs aimed at Mitt Romney’s career with Bain Capital, the Daily Beast‘s “investigative reporting” on Karen Santorum’s ex-boyfriend, even the Newt Gingrich “open marriage” bombshell … none of these hold a candle to past negative campaigning.
In the 1800 campaign — America’s first competitive presidential election — Thomas Jefferson’s SuperPAC equivalents referred to John Adams as a “hideous hermaphroditical character;” in reply, Adams’s supporters described Jefferson as “a mean-spirited, low-lived fellow, the son of a half-breed Indian squaw, sired by a Virginia mulatto father.”
It’s pretty much gone downhill from there.
In 2000, George W. Bush’s operatives spread rumors in South Carolina that John McCain — a former prisoner of war in Vietnam — might be a “Manchurian candidate,” and that his adopted daughter (of Bangladeshi ancestry) was actually an out-of-wedlock “love child” from an affair with an African-American woman.
In 2008, we learned that Barack Obama not only “pals around with terrorists,” but is in actuality a Kenyan-born Muslim Communist, smuggled into the US and his birth records doctored so that he could someday destroy the United States from 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue. And that Sarah Palin faked her own pregnancy. And that Mitt Romney was a robot. OK, that last one may be true. But anyway …
Negative campaigning is part and parcel of American politics for three reasons.
The first is that there’s a lot at stake. Even the least fiscally demanding of the Republican candidates, US Representative Ron Paul, only wants to cut $1 trillion from the federal budget. That means he’s running for executive control of $2.7 trillion, or more than $8,500 to be annually seized from each man, woman and child in the United States through taxation, inflation or debt assignation. I’ve seen customers and cashiers say nasty things about each other over a 39 cent discrepancy in the grocery checkout line. We’re not talking chump change here.
The second is that politicians have nothing to offer the public but fear. They can’t give you anything they haven’t first taken from you. In the aggregate, that is: Yes, some pay more than others and some get less, but that’s the whole point, see? The pivotal exercise in electoral politics is convincing you that I’ll take something from Pete and give it to you, while that other guy — the big meanie who cheats on his wife, smokes crack on the campaign bus, and may actually be a secret Rwandan! — will take something from you and give it to Pete. Letting Pete keep his stuff and you yours is explicitly off the table. The game’s rigged that way from the start.
The third reason is that negative campaigning works. You — I’m speaking to voters here, and once again in the aggregate — say you don’t like it, but your voting patterns prove you respond to it exactly as its practitioners intend. “Shining city on a hill” and all that makes for nice stump speech filler, but it’s “keep your sheep locked up when my opponent’s around” that moves the poll results.
There’s only one way to get past negative campaigning, and that’s getting past campaigning itself. Getting past politics. Lowering the stakes by telling those boobs on the stage that your $8,500+ is yours, not theirs. That they can’t have it. That you don’t need them.
That happens to be the position of the non-voting American majority. 57% of Americans did not cast votes in the 2008 presidential election. They withheld their consent to be ruled by the lying, thieving, fearmongering few. In 2012, let’s join them in their healthy rejection of politics.