The Big Idea

Poisoned Politics

The ads this year are worse than ever. Both sides aren’t to blame.

Rick Renzi spot

Last week, I turned on the TV set in a hotel room in Phoenix. The first commercial I saw, for Rick Renzi, a vulnerable Republican congressman, was an effusion of pure political poison. In a voice rancid with contempt, the announcer declared:

Over 100 Democratic elected officials are opposing Democrat trial lawyer Ellen Simon. Liberal Ellen Simon served as the president of the ACLU, a radical organization that defends hard-core criminals at the man/boy love association, a national group that preys on our children. One Democratic mayor called Simon’s actions “utterly disgusting.” He’s right. Ellen Simon: radical, liberal and wrong for Arizona.

While hearing this, the viewer sees just key terms superimposed on the Democrat’s face: “LIBERAL” … “Served as the President of the ACLU” … “Radical Organization defends hard core criminals Man/Boy Love Association” … “ACLU Defends Child Molester Group” … “Preys on our children” … “utterly disgusting” … “radical, liberal.”

Dutifully performing the fact-checking function expected of responsible newspapers, the Arizona Daily Sun analyzed the content of the ad. It could not “independently verify” that 100 elected officials had endorsed Renzi, though 55 are apparently members of a Navajo tribal council whose gambling interests Renzi has championed. Ellen Simon was not the president of the American Civil Liberties Union, but a volunteer lawyer in Cleveland who represented the group in precisely one case. That case had nothing to do with NAMBLA or child molesters. The “Democratic mayor” who called Simon “utterly disgusting” is effectively a Republican. Simon, who supports school choice and cracking down on illegal immigrants, is by no means a “radical liberal.” In other words, not a single claim in the ad is actually true.

This spot is, however, entirely characteristic of the mud that Republicans are raining on their Democratic opponents in the closing days of the campaign. Buggery is probably the top theme. In California, Republican incumbent John Doolittle has similarly accused his challenger, the unfortunately named Charlie Brown, of being pro-NAMBLA because he’s an ACLU member. Kenneth Blackwell, the Republican candidate for governor in Ohio, charges that his opponent opposed a resolution condemning sex between adults and children. Sonny Perdue, the Republican governor of Georgia, accuses his opponent of putting “the interests of the radical homosexual lobby ahead of our Boy Scouts.”

National Republican Campaign Committee spot

The other big attack topics this cycle are Democrats and nonpedophilic sex, Democrats and drugs, Democrats and Osama, flag-burning, and illegal immigrants. In a New York congressional race, the National Republican Campaign Committee tried to run an ad accusing Democratic candidate Michael Arcuri of spending taxpayer money to call a sex hot line. The call was a wrong number that cost $1.25. When television stations refused to run it, the NRCC went with a more conventional charge that Arcuri went easy on a child rapist as a prosecutor. In Missouri, threatened Republican Sen. Jim Talent blames challenger Claire McCaskill for the prevalence of methamphetamine in Kansas City. In Ohio, likely-to-lose Republican Sen. Mike DeWine claims that his Democratic challenger, Sherrod Brown, is a hippie peacenik who doesn’t support the military. In Iowa, Republican congressional candidate Mike Whalen links his Democratic opponent to the Communist Party and the Taliban. And, all across the country, Republicans are accusing Democrats of wanting to pay Social Security benefits to illegal aliens.

Vernon Robinson spot

If there were an Oscar for political slime, it would go to “Twilight Zone,” a spot run by Vernon Robinson, a congressional challenger in North Carolina. In 60 seconds, the ad manages to tie Democrat Brad Miller to Osama, gay marriage, “lesbians and feminists,” activist judges, infanticide, flag-burning, racial quotas, space aliens, illegal immigrants, Jesse Jackson, and Al Sharpton. In another ad, Robinson stamps “XXX” across Miller’s face, claiming that his opponent refused to support body armor for troops in Iraq but that he “pays for sex” and that he “spent your tax dollars to pay teenage girls to watch pornographic movies with probes connected to their genitalia.” It’s all mendacious nonsense, but Paul Nelson, a Republican running for Congress in Wisconsin, liked the ad so much he ran it virtually unchanged against his own opponent.

“Harold, Call Me” spot

Apologists for negative advertising often contend that, unpleasant or not, it conveys information and policy content. But it’s hard to see what ads like these contribute to anyone’s knowledge, beyond the notion that politicians are vermin and scum. Consider the most notorious ad of the campaign, the “Harold, Call Me” spot, aimed at the black Democrat running for the U.S. Senate in Tennessee. It begins with a black woman saying, “Harold Ford looks nice—isn’t that enough?” and goes on to claim that Ford wants to take away guns from hunters and is supported by the porn industry, before ending with a white actress who says she met Ford at a Playboy party and wants to hook up with him. The not-so-subliminal message is that Ford rejects women of his own race in favor of white hussies. Whether you think that’s racist or not—and I do—the ad contains no “information” that isn’t fundamentally false.

The other familiar excuse for negative advertising is that “everybody does it.” Newspaper stories about attack commercials usually include a sampling of harsh Democratic spots in an effort to appear evenhanded. But there’s really no comparison between what the two parties and their respective surrogates are doing. According to, a respected site that reviews the accuracy of various ads, “the National Republican Campaign Committee’s work stands out this year for the sheer volume of assaults on the personal character of Democratic House challengers.” Negative Democratic ads tie Republican candidates to President Bush, and to the Iraq war, or accuse them of being in the tank for the oil or pharmaceutical industries. But Democratic ads do not charge that their opponents “prey on our children”—even though one recently resigned following accusations that he did precisely that. One can only imagine the ads Republicans would have made this year if Mark Foley had happened to be a Democrat. 

In fact, the form, style, and content of the contemporary attack ad are a specifically conservative contribution to American politics. Republicans have developed most of the techniques, vocabulary, and symbolism at work in these spots over the last couple of decades. Some of the motifs go back to Nixon and Spiro Agnew, but you can trace most of the elements back to the presidential campaign Lee Atwater ran for George H.W. Bush in 1988, best remembered for the Willie Horton ad and the charge that Michael Dukakis was a “card-carrying member of the ACLU.” What’s different in this election is simply the ubiquity of the conservative calumny and, in some cases, the aggressiveness of the Democratic response. Spreading hatred and poisonous lies about one’s opponent has become an ordinary and almost accepted part of running for office.

It shouldn’t be. There may be no cure for dishonest attack advertising that isn’t worse than the disease. But that doesn’t mean that voters shouldn’t be offended or that they should fail to react when politicians treat them as docile bigots. Republicans deserve to get walloped next week for this, if for nothing else.