The Logic of the Low Road

I was on television recently, debating a conservative. It's something I do fairly often. During a commercial break, the producer spoke into my earpiece. "A bit more energy," he said.

"What do you mean?" I answered, slightly hurt. I thought I'd been doing a fairly good job scoring points.

"Rip into him. Only three minutes in the next segment, and we want to make the most of it."

John McCain says he's intent on waging a respectful and civil presidential campaign. Barack Obama says the same. Is it possible that during the months leading up to this Election Day the American people will be treated to the kind of campaign we've all been dreaming about, in which the two candidates debate the big issues and avoid the low blows?

We've grown accustomed to gutter politics. We've even turned it into verbs -- to "Bork" (to impugn one's opponent's character), to "Swift boat" (to lie about a critical fact in one's opponent's biography), and, perhaps, to "Reverend Wright" (to create the impression that one's opponent shares a set of beliefs with a person he has associated with).

All three require a relentless attack that feeds on itself. Unproven allegations are repeated so often that the attack itself becomes news, as does the manner in which the target responds, after which point the question becomes whether the attack has hurt its target and, if so, whether the damage is fatal. The target is then watched for any signs of personal distress, defensiveness, or anger. Can the target take it? Will the target recant, backtrack, cover up, apologize, reveal more, disassociate himself, go on a counter-attack? What does the target's response tell us about his or her character? The story then shifts to the media -- are they continuing to report it? Are they being responsible in doing so? And after this self-referential orgy, the story moves to the polls -- is the public losing confidence in the candi-date? In the days or weeks this goes on, the target has no opportunity to talk about anything other than the attack, and the public hears about nothing else, so the target's poll numbers are likely to fall, which creates the final story: Can the target ever come back?

Character assassination, outright lies, and guilt by association are hardly new to American politics. Aaron Burr, New York Parks Commissioner Robert Moses, Sen. Joe McCarthy, and J. Edgar Hoover were all avid practitioners. But the modern media, coupled more recently with the blogosphere and You-Tube, have made these kinds of attacks even more potent. Political consultants—those snakelike creatures who slither through the swamps and sinkholes of politics—have turned Borking, Swift-boating, and Reverend-Wrighting into low-brow but highly lucrative art forms, cynically valued by the media for their effec-tiveness. So-called "527s" -- the head-less and mysterious bodies that grow in the interstices of our election laws -- have become their launching pads. In the logic of this underworld, "going negative" is no longer considered a campaign option; it is a necessity. Although it may injure the perpetrator (if it can ever be traced back), it will cause greater harm to the opponent.

So what are the odds that McCain and Obama will make a historic break with this sordid tradition and take the high road instead? Each man may sincerely wish to do so. Both have based their candidacies, to some extent, on creating a new politics that rejects the gutter-ball tactics of the old. Each has enough ammunition against the other (for every Reverend Wright, a Reverend Hagee) to suggest the wisdom of mutual arms control. Each is distancing himself from mud-slinging, though the parties may well take the lower road: The Repub-lican Party is already airing ads linking Obama to Wright, which McCain has disavowed but not shut down. Mostly, though, the public is fed up with the rancor -- isn't it?

I asked the producer who was talking into my earpiece why I had to rip into my opponent. "We see viewer-ship minute by minute," he said hurriedly (the commercial break was about over). "When you really go after each other, we get a spike." It's the spike I'm worried about. I chose not to rip into my opponent but, then again, I'm not running for president. The public says it's tired of gladiator politics. But take a closer look. The ripping and slashing is one of America's favorite spectator sports. And the media that inform us about the candidates, and the advertisers who dictate the terms by which they do so, know it.

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