By Paolo von Schirach
July 15, 2012
WASHINGTON – On a recent Sunday TV talk show on one of the major networks there was a great deal of interest on the barrage of attacks launched by President Obama and his surrogates against Mitt Romney’s tenure at Bain Capital. Romney is openly portrayed as a “vulture capitalist”. As a CEO –you should know– his only concern was to to squeeze as much as possible from the companies he bought, with total disregard for workers.
Romney is a bad, bad guy
Companies were chopped, chewed and then tossed away, like garbage. And Romney also merrily outsourced as many jobs as he could abroad in the hope of higher profits due to lower labor costs in emerging countries. Conclusion: some kind of a “businessman”, this Romney. He is jutst an unprincipled, cold blooded scoundrel, focused only on getting rich.
Pundits only interested on the impact of smear on polls
This stuff is pretty outrageous. This is willful character assassination. But the commentary and the opinions given in that TV show had nothing to do with the truthfulness of the allegations. It was all about whether this line of attack aimed at discrediting Romney would actually work. And, if so, what should Romney do? How should he counterattack in order to regain the upper hand?
In the clever back and forth on this issue nobody bothered to examine whether the allegations as presented are actually true or not. Apparently this does not matter. National opinion leaders are interested in interpreting where the game is headed and who the clever winner might be. They have no opinion on the morality of the players.
Pundits not interested in standards of conduct
I think this is really bad. There is right and wrong. There are standards of human conduct. Telling lies, even in a political campaign, is wrong. And if instead of lies you have willful misrepresentation of facts it is exactly the same. But nobody cares about any of this.
In other words, the effort is totally focused on analyzing the messages that work (the results show up in opinion polls) and those that don’t. The fact that candidates may distort, fabricate and invent stuff purely to embarrass the other guy is immaterial. The point of an election is to win. Any means that will get you there are apparently legitimate.
Call me naive, call me sentimental; but I just cannot accept this level of cynicism. A political campaign should be about debating different policy agendas and about vetting the records of the candidates. But it should not be about fabricating or distorting records with the clear objective to make the other side look bad in front of public opinion. And let’s be clear, all the operatives who concoct this nasty stuff know exactly what they are doing . And they do know that all this is wrong and immoral.
Lee Atwater and Michael Dukakis in 1988
Let me illustrate this with a famous example. Lee Atwater was considered a master strategist among Republicans back in the 1980s. He led the election campaign of George Bush senior in 1988. His opponent was Massachusetts Governor Michael Dukakis.
Looking at his record, Atwater and his crew found out that Dukakis had promoted a weekend furlough program that granted some time out of jail even to violent offenders. Among them there was Willie Horton. He did not come back from his furlough. Instead he committed a series of violent crimes until he was caught. Dukakis had not started the furlough program; but he endorsed it, even for violent offenders.
For Lee Atwater, the Willie Horton case seemed a wonderful opportunity to paint Dukakis as soft on crime and therefore a weak national leader. And so Willie Horton –one major blemish, but only one– became a central theme of the entire campaign. Republican ads blasted Dukakis. Eventually George Bush won the elections, in some measure due to Atwater’s clever “Willie Horton” ads. Because of his clever tactics Atwater was called by one biographer “the best campaign manager who ever lived”.
But this is not the end of the story. Years later, Lee Atwater, terminally ill with brain cancer, sent word out to Dukakis asking for his forgiveness for “the naked cruelty” of the 1988 campaign which was centered on how he consciously manipulated the Wille Horton incident to make Dukakis look bad. So, a savvy political operative knew perfectly well that what he was doing to win an election was immoral. It took him to be near death to apologize; but he had known all along that what he had done was wrong.
It is obvious that the pundits who comment on today’s political attacks also know (at least in most cases) what is true and what is not. But they have nothing to say about the moral qualities of the candidate who authorize the release of the nasty stuff. They are there to explain the game. They have no qualms in how it is played. And this is really bad.
“Anything goes” is a bad foundation for any Republic
Let’s look at the consequences. First we accept that “Anything Goes” in politics, because, Dear Americans, the name of the game is winning, whatever the means. But then we are supposed to trust and respect as president a candidate who fought his way into the White House through willful distortions and lies.
This is a horrible foundation for any genuine Republic. The real strength of a Republic rests on the virtue of citizens and office holders. With no virtue, the whole thing becomes an insiders game, a scam run by the all too clever operatives like Lee Atwater. And scams do not last.