Saturday, October 28, 2006

Negative Advertising

The 2006 midterm elections are hot hot hot.

The races, already competitive coming in to October, became even more so as the Republicans were knocked off message by the Foley Page scandal (in case you've been in a cave the past month, Representative Foley of Florida sent naughty messages - in Tony Snow's words - to young male Pages). Now, as I've said since 2000, it's the Democrats' races to lose.

The strategies of the two parties this election season are noteworthy for their differences. The Republican National Committee is doing what it's been doing successfully for 10 years, which is to raise huge sums of money from big donors, then funnel that money into 10 or 15 close races, more-or-less ignorning the rest of the country.

This had been the Democratic strategy until Howard Dean became Chariman of the DNC. His strategy, which is hated by the old-time Democrats, has been to not raise huge sums of money from a few key donors, and not to spend money on only a handful of targeted races. Instead, Dean has been raising money from small donors (sound familiar?) from across the country, and then funneling that money into local Democratic party organizations everywhere - even Alaska.

The thinking behind the strategy is that the Democratic party must rebuild its grassroots base, and in so doing eventually be able to win races in areas that Democrats have not seen victories in decades, such as the South.

The problem is that there is a spectacular imbalance between the two parties. Republicans have at least $69 million in their coffers. Democrats have in the neighborhood of $14 million. Given the strong correlation between money spent in a race and winning, this could prove problematic for Democrats.

There's a second notable difference in the parties' strategies. According to a new report from the non-partisan Factcheck.org. , Republican Campaign Committee ads in targeted districts have been attacking Democratic opponents on their character. Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee ads have attacked Republican opponents on their policy positions.

Now, the Democratical ads are often incorrect or misleading in their attacks - so I do not want to appear to be defending the Democratic strategy. But, the Republican attack ads are classic mudslinging.

Although character can be an issue in a campaign, for example if a politician has been found to be involved in illegal doings the voters have a right to know (take, for example, the Comptroller's race in New York, with Alan Hevesi illegally using a state driver for personal use). Often, though, these character attacks are completely baseless, and aim only to demean or smear the name of the Democratic opponent.

Perhaps, the most controversial ad has been the character attack on Harold Ford, a black Democrat running in Tenneessee against white Republican Bob Corker. The person-on-the-street ad shows average people saying that Ford was right to rasie money from the porn industry, to reinstitute the "death" tax, and to let Canada deal with North Korea. The most controversial element is the sexy blonde who says she met Ford at a Playboy Bunny party. The ad ends with her winking to the camera and telling Ford to "call me."

The ad, at its most innocent, calls into question both Ford's policy positions and his character (raising money from the porn industry and attending Playboy parties is meant to be sleazy). At worst, as John Geer notes (whose book on negative advertising my grad students will be reading soon), the ad plays into fears white people have of interracial dating and sex.

Ken Mehlman, RNC chair initially said the ad was not racist and that the RNC wasn't involved in making it. Later, he corrected that statement (the RNC did, indeed, create and pay for the ad), and the ad is no longer playing. But, many other sleazy ads are.

So, at a 10,000 foot view it seems that Republicans are doing what they've been doing and Democrats are trying something new. It remains to be seen which tactics will work. For the sake of democracy, I hope that we could have less mudslinging, more accurate attacks on policy positions, and more energy and money and spent across the country and not just on 10 races in a few key states. But campaigns rarely are meant to better the democracy . . . .

Wednesday, October 11, 2006

The BEST Resource for Political Ad Analysis

The mid-term election campaigns are in full swing, and political ads are invading our television screens.

For the the best resource for analysis of the truth and lies in political ads, visit Factcheck.org. The website, referrenced (incorrectly) in the 2004 Vice Presidential debates by Dick Cheney, has continued to be the premier source for critiques of political advertising.

The website was started by journalist Brooks Jackson, the father of adwatching on television news, as part of an initiative at the Annenenberg School for Communication, at the University of Pennsylvania (my alma mater). Factcheck.org is funded through the Annenberg Foundation, and is non-partisan and beholden to no special interests that might influence the analysis.

If you want to know whether your candidate is telling fibs or telling the truth about his or her opponent, visit the site.

Tuesday, October 03, 2006

To Hell in a Handbasket

As in "We are going to hell in a handbasket." [A big gold star to the person who knows where this saying comes from. I say it a lot these days, and I love the imagery.]

Weeks like this one make me think the United States is rotten at its moral core.

Sunday night, I watched 60 minutes, which had an expose on a surge in violence against the homeless, apparently because of the video series "Bumfights," which shows bums fighting each other and doing violent, painful, dangerous things to themselves while deeply intoxicated.

White, suburban teenage boys watch "Bumfights" (which can be downloaded from the Internet). Then, after having thoroughly laughed at and ridiculed the homeless in the videos, violently attack homeless they encounter or seek out on the streets.

Sixty Minutes interviewed the creator of "Bumfights," a 24 year old white guy who saw absolutely nothing wrong with the videos. He paid two homeless guys alcohol and pocket change to do the acts he captured on video. "Bumfights" has led to "The Bum Hunter," video footage of another 20-something white guy who goes around binding and gagging the homeless. The 24 year old director of Bumfights, when shown footage from "The Bum Hunter" thought that these were funny "skits." And, he insinuated that the homeless deserved it for being bums.

My moral outrage meter was on overdrive.

And, then, there are the school shootings. Three in a week. The latest one happened in Lancaster, PA, when a white middle aged guy stormed an Amish one room school house, released all the boys and teachers, then lined up the girls, bound them, and shot each of them in the head. Five girls have died so far, and the other seven girls fight to survive.

What in the hell is wrong in this country?

But, wait, there's more. It seems that another white, middle aged guy simply can't be a decent human being. Representative Mike Foley appears to like little boys, pages at the White House, to whom he instant messaged and emailed sexually explicit notes.

Remember in the 2004 elections, when Republicans declared that they won the election on moral values? Where are those moral values now?

Sunday, October 01, 2006

Power to the President

On Friday, Congress completed its work on the Military Comissions Act of 2006.

In a nutshell the Bill allows the President to interpret the Geneva Conventions, and establishes that the courts do not have jurisdiction to hear challenges to his interpretation.

The legislation also strips detainees of any right to challenge their detentions in court. [This little element is likely to land the Bill back before the Supreme Court, and force Congress to rewrite the legislation.]


It also defines "enemy combatants" more broadly. Now, an "enemy combatant" is any noncitizen living in the United States (legally or illegally) or living outside the United States who is determined by the Secretary of Defense or the President to be an enemy combatant.

This legislation gives the Executive Branch broad power in establishing the judicial process for detainees. The bill denies the Judicial branch oversight when the Executive branch is challenged on its execution of that process.

The United States needs to establish a judicial process for trying the detainees we currently have. We ought not just hold them forever. But, this terrible piece of legislation does not get us there. It gives too much power to the Executive branch, and elements of it that can be challenged in the courts will be, which means that it will be another couple of years before we have the possibility for a process. In the meantime the 14,000 people we're currently detaining, some of whom do not deserve to be there, continue to rot in detention centers.

I can only hope that the force of public opinion, both at home and abroad, will keep the Executive in check as it tries to execute this current law. Certainly, Democrats and moderate Republicans in Congress absolutely failed in their duty to do so.

[Read a powerful critique of the Bill and our Congress in The Nation.]