Saturday, September 23, 2006

Not above Reproach; but above This Reproach

An editorial in this morning's The Tennessean blasts Republican Gubernatorial candidate Jim Bryson's new "negative" political advertisement. As noted previously at this site, Bryson's ad is not above criticism; however, the reproaches offered by the paper of record in Nashville are little more than platitudes that don't really hold any water when looked at substantively.

While some sectors of the American public regularly bemoan the existence of all negative political ads and pronouncements, "going negative" has been a regular and often valuable part of American political life throughout our history. It has been noted that much of the Declaration of Independence is essentially a "negative" statement of the evils wrought by George III, and the author of that document later showed himself to be one of the best architects of negative politics in the history of the Republic.

While serving as Secretary of State in the Washington administration, Thomas Jefferson hired on the federal dime a personal translator named Phillip Freneau, whose only languages included English and French. Jefferson, who had spent years in Paris as the American ambassador to France, had no need of such a translator and, in fact, had hired Freneau for the actual purpose of founding a newspaper in Philadelphia to attack Washington's Secretary of the Treasury, Alexander Hamilton, who Jefferson wished to portray as Washington's puppetmaster. Meanwhile, Vice-president John Adams, who also disliked Hamilton, was never beyond using colorful language to remind others that Hamilton's parents had never been married.

Over the course of history, political advertising and posturing has sometimes been both more and less enlightening than all of that, but complaints about negative politics that give the impression that such has brought about the end of substantive debate simply lacks historical perspective.

The Tennessean laments that Bryson uses a negative ad instead of telling voters about "his positions and credentials." Given that The Tennessean's editorial page has not recently distinguished itself for its breadth of thought, one perhaps should forgive them for not recognizing that one can learn about a candidate based on what he criticizes an opponent for. In addition, negative ads that reveal an opponent's inconsistencies, hypocrisy, or efforts to hide his real views can have significant value for voters.

As an example, in a Kentucky congressional race, incumbent Republican Anne Northrup has launched a series of ads showing that Democratic candidate John Yarmouth, who used to write for an alternative weekly in Louisville, has in the past taken positions that are far more controversial than what he now says that he would do as a congressman. The Yarmouth campaign has responded with loud complaints about negative advertising and claims that Northrup has taken Yarmouth's writings "out of context." For her part, Northrup has invited voters to examine the contexts themselves and has posted some of her opponent's quotes on a website.

Incidentally, Yarmouth has complicated his own response by previously writing a column in which he said that a politician should do "damage control" by claiming that statements were taken out of context or by denying they were actually made. Machiavellianism is more difficult in an age of modern communications.

Meanwhile, back in the volunteer state, The Tennessean wishes that Bryson would tell voters about some of his credentials. The paper's readers wish that it would manage to display some of its own.

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