(October 21, 2002 // link)
Fall in the Lakes Region in New Hampshire is a time of interesting contradictions. I am usually in a rush to get the yard cleaned up and the boats put away for the winter. The change of seasons is a break between soccer and basketball. Sometimes when I’m not too busy I notice that the leaves are changing colors. Sometimes I just happen to notice that they have fallen and I need to rake them up again.
What I do notice are political signs, ads, commercials, bumper stickers, slogans and phone calls from pollsters. This year I have also noticed that none of it is particularly nice. Don’t get me wrong: I am not naive, nor am I so foolish that I think that negative campaigning is something new in American politics. This year it just feels different. All of the major campaigns have chosen to “go negative early” and the issues that really matter to the future of our state are lost in a sea of rhetoric. Most significant, however, is the extremely personal nature of the attacks.
People often complain that there are no good candidates running for office. But think for a minute what a candidate or politician is expected to endure to “serve” in elected office. Despite popular belief, most people who serve, especially in local positions, are honest, diligent, hard working people who simply choose to serve in government because they want to make a difference. They are not usually evil, conniving maniacs who seek power in local government to make others suffer. On the contrary, it is usually the local politician who makes the family, business and personal sacrifice only to be abused for their efforts. Many more good candidates would emerge if they thought that they only had to deal with issues and not with explaining to their children why all those people say such mean things about them.
The new form of attack ad suggests that people call the political opponent and “tell them what you think”. I suggest that if you choose to make that call you remember a few things. First, you probably will not get to speak personally with a major candidate for office. You will get to speak to a staffer or volunteer who has most likely heard those bad words before and does not need another dose from you. You can disagree respectfully and in fact will be more effective in the long run if you can. Second, the opponent’s campaign really does not care that you disagree. If they can’t convince you to vote for their candidate, they won’t talk to you for long. Third, Stick to the issues and avoid personal attacks. Personal attacks only serve to diminish the attacker and to demean the political process. Finally, your voice is heard most loudly at the polls. Vote. Regardless of your position, the most effective way of communicating with your opponent is to show up and vote.
What about those push polls where the caller suggests an answer before you can say anything? A question that starts out with, “Who has a better environmental record, that Bunny killing, SUV driving John Doe or the real nice, bike riding vegetarian Ron Roe?” is not an objective poll question. What kind of data is that question intended to develop? None. These push polls are simply intended to manipulate the voting public into believing things that are not true. Any purported “polling data” derived from these calls is invalid and cannot be used honestly.
I offer these thoughts for what they are worth. In my many years of involvement in political campaigns I have attempted to avoid personalizing my politics. Regrettably, I have not always been successful and judge myself harshly for those failures. I have learned a few things over the years: it is my sincere hope that as we enter the home stretch toward elections we remember to check out the leaves, smell the autumn air and remember that not only are those people we read and write about politicians, but they are also our kids coaches, our neighbors and our friends (even if they are gooey liberals who don’t know a damned thing about municipal budgets!).