The gubernatorial debates should cut through mudslinging [Commentary]

Maryland's key candidates for governor are locked in a character battle

October 03, 2014|By Richard E. Vatz

The presidential election of 2012 and Maryland's gubernatorial election of 2014 have much in common rhetorically in terms of their approaches to issues and spin, the two key components of political persuasion.

The 2012 presidential election pitted a likable African-American Democratic incumbent president against a white, older Republican who had been out of politics for years. The 2014 Maryland gubernatorial race features a likable incumbent African-American Democratic lieutenant governor against a white, older Republican who has been out of politics for years.

In the respective elections, the Democratic candidate was seen and is seen as promoting policies that appeared to have serious problematic consequences.

In 2012, President Barack Obama was superintending an economy that was just not breaking out of a recession and foreign policy initiatives that seemed to violate long-term warnings about troop withdrawals irrespective of unstable ground realities.

But the 2012 campaign, through dexterous Democratic persuasion and Republican debate errors, often focused on his opponent's perceived faults, such as former Gov. Mitt Romney's rhetorical clumsiness and alleged gaffes (his hypothetical $10,000 debate bet with Texas Gov. Rick Perry on what Mr. Romney's position was on the individual mandate of Massachusetts' health care law, for example), and Mr. Romney's inexplicable conceding of little foreign policy difference with the president in the infamous third presidential debate. Such matters made up much of the agenda for that presidential race.

Going into Maryland's upcoming election for governor, Democratic nominee Lt. Gov. Anthony Brown is burdened by his handling of the health care rollout, Maryland state spending, Maryland tax policies, the loss of wealth through the leaving of corporations and individuals from Maryland, and the rise in unemployment.

Mr. Brown, understandably, wants the focus elsewhere: on the conservative ideology of his Republican opponent Larry Hogan, including Mr. Hogan's positions in years past regarding abortion, gun control and, according to Mr. Brown's camp, "massive" college tuition hikes — something Mr. Hogan says he never supported.

In fact, Mr. Hogan is pushing back against many of the claims from Mr. Brown's campaign, with the advertising on both sides negative. (Full disclosure: I'm a Hogan supporter.)

It's a strong shift from the primary when Democratic contender Del. Heather Mizeur suggested that the electorate was rejecting negative campaigning, thereby chilling any substantive discussion, much less attacks, on Mr. Brown's leadership.

Pundits across Maryland found Ms. Mizeur's rejection of policy criticism a breath of fresh air. In reality, she was a great line of defense for Mr. Brown. Her argument made it seem unfair for Democrats and particularly then-candidate Attorney General Doug Gansler to question Mr. Brown's agenda or spin whatsoever.

But in the general election, where the rivals are from other political parties, the gloves have come off.

The most effective strategy for an incumbent who does not wish to defend his or her positions is to claim the issue for voters is the ideology and/or character of his or her opponent. That has been the gravamen of the Brown campaign in focusing on abortion and characterizing — or spinning — Mr. Hogan as "dangerous" and "radical" and as one who would "take Maryland backward."

There are charges and countercharges, with the Hogan campaign shooting back that the Brown spin constitutes "lies" or that Lieutenant Governor Brown is "the most incompetent man in Maryland." 

October's candidate debates offer an opportunity for a fresh rhetoric to emerge.

Whatever the source of the topics in the debates — moderators, audience, questioners — they are the last chance to ensure that the campaign agenda before election day comprises material questions regarding contingent, undecided important issues for the economic and social welfare of the state of Maryland.

Name-calling and irrelevant, inconsequential points of dispute are the refuge of politicians who do not wish to defend their records and/or positions.

To be fair, such a strategy may be effective, but it is not a democratically valid way to run an election or to choose the better candidate.

Richard E. Vatz is professor of political rhetoric at Towson University and is author of "The Only Authentic Book of Persuasion" (Kendall Hunt, 2013); his email is rvatz@towson.edu.


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