Calvin Freiburger

The Problem With Personal Attacks: Accuracy, Not Subject Matter

Posted on October 21 2010 11:00 am
Hailing from Fond du Lac, Wisconsin, Calvin Freiburger is a political science major at Hillsdale College. He also writes for the Hillsdale Forum and his personal website, Calvin Freiburger Online.
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The problem with this image is that it’s dishonest – not that it’s “personal.”

There’s a lot of confusion regarding rhetoric in American politics. Everybody professes to hating attack ads – and not without just cause – but do we hate them for the right reasons? Today, we have another opportunity to confront the question, courtesy of the Daily Beast. Howard Kurtz reports that the Democrats, desperate to avoid an electoral wipeout next month, have gone personal in their attacks against Republican candidates:

But the unmistakable theme of this eleventh-hour blitz by Democratic Party committees is that the Republican contenders are unethical and untrustworthy business types. While President Obama accuses the opposition of wanting to lurch backwards to the Bush years, Democratic strategists—those in the trenches—are playing a rougher game.

“The party is doing stuff that is too hot for candidates,” says Evan Tracey, who tracks television advertising as president of the nonpartisan Campaign Media Analysis Group. “You see ad after ad going at them right between the eyes. It’s personal, it’s cutting. It’s ‘here’s what we found in the oppo dump and we’re going to put it in the worst light possible.’”

The allegations, often based on selective use of facts, are fair game. But they also represent the kind of scorched-earth tactics that strategists employ when their clients are in danger of losing, and losing big. The party is spending heavily on these aerial attacks.

“We’ve always said this election has to be a contrast, that it cannot just be an up-or-down vote on Democrats,” says Eric Schultz, a spokesman for the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee. “We believe what Republicans did before entering politics, or before 2012, should be part of the conversation.”

The National Republican Senatorial Committee, not surprisingly, says it’s not working. The Democrats, says spokesman Brian Walsh, “have come to the conclusion they can scare voters by trying to marginalize the candidates personally. Harry Reid spent $6 million in attack ads against Sharron Angle, trying to demonize her,” and yet the Nevada Republican remains competitive.

Is “it” working? Well, that’s kind of a pointless question to ask and answer as long as we’re talking about “attacking” in the singular. Some probably do, some probably don’t—it depends on lots of factors, including the perceived urgency of issues other than a candidate’s character, whether or not particular lines of attack seems plausible to the voters, and whether or not the candidate on the receiving end are on the ball in countering them. You can’t generalize, as the poll at the end of the piece tries to do, by simply asking, “Do Attack Ads Work?”

More importantly, the extent to which the several ads Kurtz highlights are right or wrong has nothing to do with the mere fact that they discuss issues other than the political positions and statements of candidates, and everything to do with whether or not they’re true. A candidate’s personal integrity ought to be subjected to at least as much scrutiny as his views on the issues; how else are we to judge the likelihood of a candidate breaking his campaign promises, disregarding the law, and abusing the public trust to benefit himself and those around him? Past illegality, marital infidelity, professional misconduct…all these aspects of a biography speak to character and trustworthiness, and I’m flabbergasted whenever I read self-righteous, pox-on-both-their-houses lectures on the subject that bemoan such attacks without even showing the slightest interest in the accuracy of any of the particulars.

Mind you, that’s not to say the sleaze factor should be the last word in all cases—it may be that both candidates are cretins, or that one candidate’s views would make for such destructive policy that a more garden-variety malcontent is the lesser of two evils—and it’s always good to see the hypocrisy of self-righteous leftists exposed. But methinks the time of pundits such as Fred Barnes would be better served not by complaining not when Democrats “emphasize the individual flaws of Republican candidates,” but when they do so with lies.


Hailing from Fond du Lac, Wisconsin, Calvin Freiburger is a political science major at Hillsdale College.  He also writes for the Hillsdale Forum and his personal website, Calvin Freiburger Online.

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