Crossing Lines

The day after the Michigan primary, I briefly noted in passing Rep. Justin Amash’s break from convention in blasting his defeated primary opponent during his victory press conference. Like a lot of people, probably, I figured it was a product of Amash’ generally hostile relationship with a “Republican Establishment” that had lavishly funded Brian Ellis’ challenge. But it was striking, given the usual cynical practice of pols linking arms and even campaigning together after primary campaigns in which they call each other scum-sucking criminals.

Even more interestingly, Amash did not contextualize his disdain for Ellis by linking him to the evil Democrats or claming his ads violated “conservative principles.” So far as I can tell, he’s made his complaints strictly about the mendacity and viciousness of Ellis’ ads, especially one which calls Amash, an Arab-American, “al Qaeda’s best friend in Congress.” In other words, Amash left himself wide-open to being quoted by Democrats when Republicans make similar attacks on them, which they are prone to do. And that seems to be okay with him.

This is, of course, an isolated incident, so it’s too early to say we might be seeing the beginning of a real bipartisan backlash against ads that tell blatant lies or make baseless personal attacks. It’s the overwhelming CW in American politics that negative campaigning (as opposed to comparative campaigning, which is an entirely different thing) almost always works, and that candidates who deploy it rarely pay a price except perhaps among people who aren’t going to vote for them anyway. The recent practice of “fact-checking” ads hasn’t made much difference, other than to raise questions about the objectivity of the fact-checkers.

Perhaps it’s a reflection of my own biases, but the most remarkable examples of flat-out vicious lies in campaign ads I can remember were the similar “friend of al Qaeda” ads against Max Cleland in 2002; the “swiftboating” of John Kerry in August 2004, and the racially-weighted “Obama gutted welfare reform” Romney/Ryan ads of 2012. The even-more-famous Willie Horton ad of 1988 attacking Mike Dukakis was truly satanic, but didn’t really get used that much (though the general “issue” of Dukakis’ furloughs was a staple of the Bush-Quayle campaign).

I’d invite readers to supply their own examples of really, really nasty stuff in the comment thread. Perhaps the ethical lines that have all but been abolished can someday be reestablished.

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Ed Kilgore

Ed Kilgore, a Monthly contributing editor, is a columnist for the Daily Intelligencer, New York magazine’s politics blog, and the managing editor for the Democratic Strategist.