It was tough sledding this year for the mudslingers

November 16, 2008|By C. Fraser Smith

Voters in Maryland's 1st Congressional District were urged to vote against Democrat Frank M. Kratovil Jr. because he agreed to a plea bargain involving a child molester. The assumption: Voters would see the two-term Queen Anne's County prosecutor as soft on crime, a hopeless liberal Democrat.

It didn't work. Mr. Kratovil's accuser, Republican state Sen. Andy Harris, lost to Mr. Kratovil in a race almost everyone thought Mr. Harris would win.

Across the nation, at many levels, negative campaigning was in full stride during the last election. But it appears to be losing some of its sordid luster.

In North Carolina, Sen. Elizabeth Dole suggested her opponent, Kay Hagan, was "godless." Ms. Hagan, a Sunday school teacher, won.

President-elect Barack Obama was said to be "palling around" with William Ayers, who was a member of a violent 1960s radical organization. Mr. Obama, also called a socialist during the campaign, is headed for the White House.

Political experiences such as these lead some to wonder if the overt mudslinging of recent elections has hit a lean period. The practice peaked when the triple-amputee Vietnam veteran Max Cleland of Georgia lost his Senate seat in 2002 to an opponent who challenged his patriotism - a strategy that was echoed two years later in the "Swift-boating" of Sen. John Kerry.

The idea is to attack your opponent at his or her strong point, trying to undermine it with guilt by association and distortion. Even if your intent is obvious, at least you'll force your opponent into a defensive posture. Most people won't bother to check out whether the allegation is true. The targets, unwilling to leave the negativity unchallenged, sometimes respond in kind. They look for ways to strike back without falling into the mud hole.

But in this election, mud merchants seemed out of touch. Even as families fell into economic distress, some candidates continued to pepper their opponents with twisted broadsides. Against the hope-and-change themes of Barack Obama and his disciples, tearing into your opponent seemed discordant.

Mr. Kratovil's defense may have been strengthened by a backlash. His opponent, Mr. Harris, had beaten longtime 1st District Rep. Wayne T. Gilchrest in the GOP primary, accusing the congressman of being disloyal to President Bush. In the general election, some of Mr. Gilchrest's Republican allies stood with the Democrat, and the outgoing congressman endorsed him.

As the race began to seem within Mr. Kratovil's reach, the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, headed by Rep. Chris Van Hollen of Maryland's 8th District, stepped in. The committee paid for television advertisements that pointed to financial help the Republican candidate had gotten from big corporations. Andy Harris' friends are not your friends, the ads said.

A relative newcomer, Mr. Kratovil won in a historically Republican district made more so when congressional districts were rebalanced. The political plan was to create districts that would be easier for Democrats to win and hold.

Mr. Harris' tactics surely had something to do with his defeat; his party's presidential candidate, Sen. John McCain, won handily in the 1st District. And the state senator was endorsed by former Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. Democrats who campaigned for Mr. Kratovil say they found that neither candidate was well known. Mr. Gilchrest's endorsement, also carried on the TV campaign commercials, meant even more.

If Mr. Harris runs again, he might consider a campaign on the issues: the Chesapeake Bay and health insurance, for example. But he could have problems there. Environmental groups called his record on the bay one of the legislature's worst.

In the area of health care, Mr. Kratovil said he supported a plan to have the state use its bulk purchasing power to buy prescription drugs for the working poor, just as it does now for those covered by Medicaid. A federal waiver is needed, but a bill pending in Congress would clear the way. Though he had voted for this idea in the state Senate, Mr. Harris' campaign declined to say how he would vote as a congressman.

Issues like these - not smear and distortion - should decide races for public office.

C. Fraser Smith is senior news analyst for WYPR-FM. His column appears Sundays. His e-mail is fsmith@wypr.org.

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