The nasty little television ad has become the overwhelming staple of the American political campaign this year. Let's hope this muddy low road has hit bottom.
There is nothing new about political attack, as the wizards of electronic campaigning remind us. When Alexis de Tocqueville came to America in the 1830s, he was astounded by the constant and incomprehensible political clamor and agitation. In "Democracy in America," Tocqueville noted that the first newspaper he read had this to say of President Andrew Jackson: "He governs by corruption and his guilty maneuvers will turn to his shame and confusion."
The language of today may not be as vicious as in the past. But the perversion and pervasiveness of the 30-second sneak attack on radio and television is something new, and is something to be lamented.
Achieving reform will be difficult, given our constitutional guarantee of freedom of expression. But voters can rebel at this insult on their intelligence by voting against those candidates who have most wantonly engaged in the practice. The media can play a role by aggressively calling candidates into account when they use such ads to distort an opponent's record or position on issues, and when they make personal attacks that have nothing to do with the election campaign.
California has pioneered in capsule television bashing. Since the state is so large, television advertising has been essential to winning major statewide campaigns for years.
But the electronic blood-letting has spread down the ticket to the point that candidates now are forced to spend millions on television in campaigns for offices such as lieutenant governor and governor.
And the nastiness has gone nationwide, even to Senate contests in homey, maple-sugar Vermont and Wisconsin, that bastion of progressivism where issues and philosophy traditionally have been important. In Wisconsin, the Democratic candidate accused the Republican senator of "drinking on the job." The Republican countered that his foe engaged in Watergate-style tactics by hiring a private investigator with instructions to probe the senator's private life. Throughout the country, Senate contests seem to hinge on issues that have little or nothing to do with the candidates' qualifications or their programs for the future.
In California, some observers had anticipated a high-road campaign between Democratic Sen. Alan Cranston and Republican Rep. Ed Zschau. Both are intelligent men with records and serious issues to discuss. But this $20-million contest has degenerated into a battle of 30-second assaults.
With the high cost of television, candidates must spend an inordinate amount of time raising more money for more ads. This leaves virtually no time for the traditional campaign in which the office seekers appear at candidate forums, hold regular press conferences to discuss real issues or even debate each other.
While Tocqueville marvelled at the intensity of campaign attacks 150 years ago, he was even more impressed by the extent to which ordinary citizens participated in political discourse at every level of government. That is no longer the case. The dialogue is limited to first strikes and desperate counterattacks, fought on a Star Wars level. The average voter is even more likely to tune out in disgust and go fishing on election day. The wealthy and influential people who feed the television money to the candidates gain even more influence.
The road back may have started in Pennsylvania, where Republican gubernatorial candidate William P. Scranton III announced he was canceling all his negative radio and TV advertising. Just another gimmick? Maybe. But we'll be watching the Pennsylvania returns on Nov. 4 to see if it seemed to do Scranton any good.