Scorched-earth cam­paign­ing is killing pol­i­tics

Pawtucket Times - - OPINION - By MITCH DANIELS

If Amer­ica has any bet­ter writ­ers than Cor­mac McCarthy, I haven’t found them.

McCarthy hasn’t writ­ten a po­lit­i­cal novel – good­ness knows we don’t need any more – but in­di­rectly, al­most al­le­gor­i­cally, maybe he has.

In his dark mas­ter­piece “No Coun­try for Old Men,” the pro­tag­o­nist is a long­time county sher­iff in south Texas who watches what has al­ways been a rough and tum­ble en­vi­ron­ment de­scend rather sud­denly into lev­els of vi­o­lence and bru­tal­ity that even that weath­ered vet­eran can­not cope with, or even com­pre­hend. Even though “bein’ sher­iff was one of the best jobs you could have and bein’ a ex-sher­iff was one of the worst,” by the book’s end, Sher­iff Ed Tom Bell is ready to quit.

Many of to­day’s politi­cians must feel sim­i­larly. View­ing the sav­agery of the cur­rent pub­lic arena, oth­ers may de­cide to not even at­tempt a po­lit­i­cal ca­reer.

Just a decade ago, but in what now seems a par­al­lel universe, one could run for pub­lic of­fice with­out vil­i­fy­ing one’s ad­ver­sary. In fact, you could even make a virtue of it.

Run­ning in a pri­mary as a first-time can­di­date, I wrote and recorded an ad nom­i­nally di­rected at my fel­low party mem­bers, but re­ally aimed at the larger elec­torate I hoped to be ad­dress­ing in a gen­eral elec­tion. In the ad I said, “I’ve never run for pub­lic of­fice be­fore, and be­fore you vote, you should know there are a few things I won’t do to win one, like com­pro­mise a fun­da­men­tal prin­ci­ple, or at­tack any­one’s per­sonal back­ground, char­ac­ter or mo­tives.”

For years af­ter, I found a sure­fire ap­plause line in a pub­lic ap­pear­ance was to men­tion that, through three con­tested cam­paigns in­clud­ing that pri­mary, we had never run a neg­a­tive ad breach­ing that pledge. In the most ir­ri­tat­ing mo­ments, I tried to bear in mind Pres­i­dent Ron­ald Rea­gan’s ad­mo­ni­tion: “We have no en­e­mies, only op­po­nents.” How far away such a world seems to­day.

In the past few months we have just en­dured, can­di­dates left and right heaped new lev­els of per­sonal scorn on their op­po­nents. Ep­i­thets such as “liar” and “thief,” which not long ago would have back­fired on the per­son em­ploy­ing them, have be­come bor­ingly com­mon. At­tach­ment of dis­parag­ing ad­jec­tives to the other per­son’s first name has mi­grated from mid­dle-school year­books to the heart of our self-gov­er­nance process.

Third-party in­ter­est groups and hired mer­ce­nar­ies, with no re­spon­si­bil­ity and prob­a­bly lit­tle in­ter­est in the ac­tual work of govern­ment be­tween elec­tions, are, if any­thing, even more vi­cious in their lan­guage and tac­tics. In case words aren’t ad­e­quate weapons, sticks and stones have en­tered the reper­toire, in the form of phys­i­cal con­fronta­tion and in­tim­i­da­tion in pub­lic spaces, or “dox­ing,” the re­lease across the In­ter­net of per­sonal ad­dresses and in­for­ma­tion.

Oh, I know, “pol­i­tics isn’t bean­bag,” and never has been. But, like Sher­iff Bell’s Ter­rell County, it has never been like this.

The sheer ob­nox­ious­ness of scorchedearth cam­paign­ing is ac­tu­ally only its sec­ond-worst prob­lem; worse is its high op­por­tu­nity cost. A would-be elected official on the cam­paign trail will have no bet­ter chance, not even if gain­ing of­fice, to com­mu­ni­cate di­rectly with the cit­i­zens he or she seeks to serve. To de­scribe a bet­ter fu­ture and steps we could take to achieve it. To se­cure un­der­stand­ing and, given suf­fi­cient suc­cess, a “man­date” to pur­sue those steps. In other words, to cam­paign to gov­ern, not merely to win.

Of course, that pre­sumes you had some such pur­pose for run­ning in the first place.

A for­mer po­lit­i­cal prac­ti­tioner gets fre­quent re­quests for ad­vice from aspir­ing can­di­dates. I’ve of­ten sug­gested that the younger ones build some pri­vate-sec­tor ex­pe­ri­ence and cred­i­bil­ity first, but have al­ways en­cour­aged am­bi­tion in men and women who have the new talent that a healthy democ­racy needs to re­fresh it­self.

I’m more hes­i­tant with that ad­vice th­ese days. When peo­ple of the finest char­ac­ter and best mo­tives are nearly cer­tain to be slimed and slan­dered, if not as­saulted, for the sin of dis­agree­ment, it’s with mixed feel­ings that one cheers them on into the Coli­seum.

Look­ing out on his own trans­formed arena, Sher­iff Bell says, “I cant say that it’s even what you are willin to do ... I think it is more like what you are willin to be­come. And I think a man would have to put his soul at hazard. And I wont do that. I think now that maybe I never would.”

Un­less and un­til a na­tional re­vul­sion with char­ac­ter-as­sas­si­na­tion pol­i­tics re­quires some de­gree of ci­vil­ity and con­struc­tive­ness in elec­toral com­pe­ti­tion, this will be no coun­try for old men, or women. And not much of one for young ones, ei­ther.

Daniels, a Post con­tribut­ing colum­nist, is pres­i­dent of Pur­due Univer­sity and a for­mer gov­er­nor of In­di­ana.

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