It’s a safe bet that prayers at Thanksgiving tables Thursday included expressions of heartfelt gratitude for the end of the most expensive and one of the most negative political campaigns in U.S. history.
“Thank you, Lord, for our family, our home and our health. And for delivering us from the slurs, lies, shameless attacks and generally despicable tactics of those who would be our leaders.”
If you were lucky enough to be in Idaho for the duration of the political campaigns, you may be wondering what would cause me to make such an observation. In Idaho, the election was, for the most part, downright civil. That’s because Idaho’s congressional and presidential “races,” such as they were, didn’t matter. Everyone knew the state would vote solidly Republican, so neither party spent much time or money here. The only issue that inspired anything close to heated campaigning was the repeal of the Luna Laws, and even that was low-key compared with what was happening in many states.
I know because I happened to spend time in another Western state during the campaign’s final two weeks. You think Idahoans were happy when the political ads ended? Where I was, they were kissing the ground and serving boilermakers at church socials.
The following isn’t a verbatim record of the congressional campaign ads that assailed voters there, but it’s close. I’ve changed the names to protect the guilty and am guilty of some exaggerating myself — but not by much:
“Candidate Smith voted to cut your Social Security benefits and your Medicare benefits. This conniving shyster would like nothing better than to have you, your family and your middle-class friends forced into the streets with nothing while he and his cronies continue to get rich.”
One of the more emotional commercials featured a woman claiming that Smith “voted to send women like me home from the hospital the same day we had our breasts removed.” Another said he would eliminate the department of education, slash millions in school budgets, pollute drinking water and “redefine rape, victimizing women all over again.”
Anyone would have to be better, right?
But wait. Pro-Smith commercials argued that his opponent, Candidate Jones, was forced out of his job, leaving his employers millions in debt. They also claimed that Jones wanted to raise taxes and “lacked integrity.” A vote for Jones was a vote to put scheming, traitorous liberals in Congress.
Two prominent politicians who had once endorsed Jones did an about-face, accusing him of having “the most shameful political ad of all,” which under the circumstances was saying quite a lot.
Often, opposing ads aired back to back, offering vastly different perspectives of the same candidate:
“Candidate Johnson’s opponent would end Medicare and Social Security, but the saintly Johnson is fighting the good fight for us. Her fight is our fight. She supports our military and our oppressed middle class. She just wants to help people. If not for her tragic death, Mother Teresa would have happily managed Johnson’s campaign.”
Seconds later, “A vote for Johnson is a vote for socialism. This liberal wench has accused hard-working, stay-at-home mothers of sponging off their husbands. And we have it on good authority that one of her biggest campaign donors is Vladimir Putin!”
“Candidate Brown is fighting for you. She puts the middle class first.”
“Candidate Brown’s campaign is full of lies!”
Creative use of photos reached new lows. One commercial would have a candidate with a perfect suit, perfect hair and a thousand-watt smile; the next would be of the same candidate with rumpled clothes, a smirk fit for a wanted poster and hair that looked like he’d been up all night with Hurricane Sandy. One ad would picture a candidate smiling beneficently at the Pearly Gates; the next had him spraying napalm on the hubs of hell.
Commercial after commercial portrayed candidates as selfless patriots who wanted only to help their fellow man and make America a better place — and as lying scoundrels who wanted to get rich and send the country to hell in a chauffeur-driven limousine. The same candidates!
And we wonder why voters get confused.
A tactic used repeatedly was to attack a candidate by saying he or she “supports Obama, was hand-picked by Obama or was an ‘Obama Rubber Stamp.’” As if this were the equivalent of saying a candidate was hand-picked by Charles Manson or a rubber stamp for Attila the Hun.
One of my favorite commercials pictured a group of cowboys seated around a “Blazing Saddles” campfire, referring to the target of their ire as a lobbyist who, if elected, would be “happier than a pig in mud.”
The commercials were virtually nonstop. You were actually relieved when some insipid pitch for dry-mouth or ED medicines broke the stream of vitriol.
Idaho politics are hardly perfect and occasionally laughable. We’ve had Idaho politicians brandishing six-guns on the floor of Congress, cleaning cowboy boots in a bidet at a luxury hotel, a congressman repeatedly claiming congressional immunity for speeding tickets, a state legislator crashing a stolen SUV while driving under the influence, and of course Dr. Winder’s helpful hints for women confused about whether they were raped.
But even the most clueless Idaho politicians still tend to conduct their campaigns with a degree of decorum. As I learned this month with dismay bordering on nausea, what passes for political discourse in some states makes Idaho political campaigns seem almost courtly.
The really scary part was that the negative campaigning was often successful. Is that what we’ve come to — candidates with limited scruples and big TV budgets getting the keys to the kingdom?
Idaho, with its small population and predictable voting patterns, is virtually ignored in national elections. Maybe it shouldn’t be. Maybe the states where politicians make voters all but physically ill with their harangues could learn something from Idaho. Civility doesn’t have to be obsolete, even in politics.
Tim Woodward's column appears in the Life section every other Sunday and is posted on www.woodwardblog.com the following Mondays. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.