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Political ads need a little bite

What if they’d had political TV ads in the early days of the Republic? You might think the tone would be highbrow and civil: “Hark, fair citizen, and lend an ear to a tale of a fellow whose views on the Ambergris Tariff Act may agreeably intersect with yours.” It would be in sepia, with fife music. Very civilized.

Hah! Not likely. If they’d had TV ads 200 years ago, they’d have swung hard and wide:

“What can one say of Obediah Phineous, except that he is plainly a rum-sodden Popish whoremonger who would sell his mother’s honor to a gang of Turkish sailors? Foul as the gusts of hell may be, they compare not to the pestilential stench that roils the air when his name is spoken – horses faint, the very fish of the deep float dead to the surface, and the tender nature of any decent woman who hears the fearful name suffers a shock of such grievous force her womb seizes up and becomes like granite upon which no seed may root. Obediah Phineous – wrong for America, wrong for Christendom, possibly Spanish, and wrong for the proposed Potomac Canal. Trade not thine soul for a vote! Elect Cyrus ‘Ol’ Honest Dredger’ Derrick, or forever turn in shame from the trusting gaze of children and dogs. (This message brought to you by the Potomac Canal Route Businessmen’s Association.)”

Politics has always been rough, but it took a genteel turn in the previous century. The famous LBJ “Daisy ad” was intended to make you think Barry Goldwater would fire off ICBMs on Inauguration Day, but it used clever Mad Ave implication, not screaming rhetoric.

Except for a few edgy spots that ran once in tiny markets and did their damage by word of mouth, most ads make a SpongeBob cartoon look like “Triumph of the Will.” Standard banal example: “Bob Johnson says he’s for tax cuts, but he voted twice to raise the price of stamps. That’s why southwestern Ohio needs Bill Jackson. He’ll fight for working families, and work for fighting families.” Then there’d be a shot of the candidate with his dog, who, we presume, is trained to sniff out any working families who might be trapped in a building collapse.

These ads treat the voters like Cub Scout den mothers who’ll give everyone a timeout if the boys don’t use their indoor voices. If there’s one thing we’ve learned from these ads, it’s that politicians frequently roll up their sleeves to shake hands with ordinary folk, and the event – believe it or not – is often captured on tape. Also, they’re fighting for working Americans, which certainly sets them apart from politicians who run on a platform of extinguishing the lower classes.

Bland as the old ads were, it’s gotten worse in the current century thanks to the McCain-Feingold Campaign Reform Act. Or, as some call it, the Incumbent Protection Act. In the name of cleanliness and decency, it forbade interest groups from running broadcast ads that attack a candidate by name within 60 days of the election. (You could spell out the name in a game of Charades, but the ad would run 20 minutes.) There was hope that the FEC would approve a provision to loosen the restrictions; you could mention an official if you didn’t attack him. Oh, what a bareknuckle nightmare that would be, right? Don’t worry. The proposal failed on a tie vote – three Democrats on the commission wanted to keep the restrictions, three Republicans wanted to relax them. So it’s gauzy walk-the-dog ads for the foreseeable future.

The battles have moved to the trenches of blogs and talk radio, where the tone is often much meaner than a weak-tea “attack” ad. That’s how it works: limit speech over here, and it pops out over there. Unfortunately, the “reformers” usually respond by limiting freedom everywhere. Blogs and talk radio have been safe for a while, but expect another run at limiting how and when they can support a candidate.

Clamping down on such things wouldn’t be a violation of your constitutional rights. Haven’t you read the Miranda decision? You have the right to remain silent.


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