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Political attack ads demean politicians, insult electorate

Credit: Patrick Gage Kelley/Contributing Editor Credit: Patrick Gage Kelley/Contributing Editor
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As I was watching the newest episode of The Big Bang Theory last Thursday night, I found myself both entertained and dismayed. This was not a result of that amusing show, but of a commercial — specifically, an attack ad vilifying Republican Senatorial candidate Pat Toomey of Pennsylvania. The ad is unbelievable in the way that only political propaganda can be. Somehow, political strategists believe that appealing to the basest instincts of the American electorate will help candidates be elected. And though it pains me to say it, they are probably right. Yet, this anything-goes, ends-justify-the-means philosophy is embarrassing. It demeans politicians, and it demeans the electorate. We should demand a higher standard from those who want to lead us.

For any of you who have not yet seen the attack ad targeting Toomey, here are some highlights of that xenophobic diatribe. A Photoshop cutout of Pat Toomey is framed against a background of the Chinese flag. Soon, he’s joined by an equally incongruous-looking cutout of an unnamed “Hong Kong businessman” who has the unforgivable goal of “growing the Chinese economy.” The ad moves on to its logical conclusion, suggesting that “maybe [Toomey] oughta run for Senate... in China.”
I am not sure if that last one is even supposed to be funny. But then again, I also don’t understand why the entire ad is supposed to be persuasive. Go to YouTube, search for “moved pat toomey,” and see for yourself.

To give a brief background on the ad in question, it was sponsored by the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee (DSCC), which is the quasi-official organization that supports all such candidates. It is operated by the national Democratic Party but has no official ties to the government. In this capacity, the DSCC funds campaigns nationwide, including that of Joe Sestak, who is running against Toomey. This attack ad is called “Moved,” referencing the fact that, according to the Washington Post, Toomey lived and worked in Hong Kong for a year.

What puzzles me most about this ad is who its intended audience is and why they would be convinced by such a bizarre argument. Political campaigns have two goals: convincing the electorate to want to vote for their candidate, and then actually getting supporters to the polls. The electorate is often split into three groups: liberals, moderates, and conservatives. And while all of these definitions are simplifications, they still don’t explain this ad. Conservatives are not going to vote for Sestak over Toomey because of an over-the-top attack ad. Liberals are already voting for Sestak. And moderates, the swing voters, are as often repelled by an attack ad as attracted to it.

It seems as if the only reasonable purpose for the ad is to get liberal voters angry at Toomey and ready to go cast their votes for Sestak. Clearly, the Sestak campaign and the DSCC don’t think that Sestak can inspire voters on his own merits. I’m not expecting a Barack Obama-style “Change We Can Believe In” groundswell, but a candidate should be more than just the least bad alternative.

I wish that the “Moved” ad was an anomaly, that it was the last resort of a failing campaign or a fringe group. But it isn’t. Attack ads are a staple of election years, and hardly any candidates will run a campaign without them. Although the anti-Toomey ad was the most recent outrageous example that I saw, there is no shortage of anti-Sestak ads on the other side that are just as bad.

What is most absurd in this whole situation is that there are plenty of legitimate arguments against Pat Toomey. Despite defending him from misguided character assassination, I disagree with him on virtually every issue and fervently hope he does not win Arlen Specter’s current Senate seat. But I do not believe that appealing to xenophobia is the best way to defeat Toomey’s campaign. Instead of saying that he should run for Senate in China, explain how his voting record shows his radical conservative views — even more so than Rick Santorum. Explain how he has a 13 percent rating on civil rights issues from the ACLU. Explain how he has a 100 percent rating from the National Right to Life Committee. Explain how he has voted to open the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge to drilling, and how he has opposed measures to promote conservation and alternative energy. And explain how he supports an amendment to the United States Constitution banning same-sex marriage.

Given Toomey’s radically conservative views, the Sestak campaign should not have to resort to such laughable arguments. With politics in America as viciously partisan as they are, reasonable people should support those candidates who prize their achievements over their opponents’ faults. They should not be taken in by cheap attacks. They should examine the issues and vote for the candidate that will support their beliefs.