Those Nasty Campaign Ads Pond-scum politics

Posted: October 31, 2006

In the annals of negative election advertising, this year should be known as the Year of the Playboy Bunny.

You've probably seen the TV commercial attacking U.S. Senate candidate Harold Ford Jr., a Tennessee Democrat who is African American. It features a bubbly blonde, scantily clad, gushing that she met Ford at a Playboy party and urging him breathlessly to "call me."

The commercial plays shamelessly on prejudices about black men with white women; even Ford's Republican opponent called on the GOP to stop airing the offensive ad. The Republican National Committee, which gave money to the group that paid for the commercial, disavowed responsibility. Wink, wink.

The Bunny ad is the sleaziest example of a campaign season that is oversaturated with misleading, negative TV commercials. The Philadelphia region has become ground zero for mudslinging, with crucial U.S. Senate races in Pennsylvania and New Jersey, and three competitive House races in the Philadelphia suburbs.

Who hasn't seen the GOP ad that sneers about Democratic challenger Lois Murphy's "dirty little secret"? Turns out, her "secret" is that she would support a tax increase on the wealthiest taxpayers, who have benefited the most from President Bush's tax cuts.

Murphy, running against Republican Rep. Jim Gerlach, has not tried to hide her position on taxes. But the producers of this commercial hope that she will look sinister. They also hope nobody will notice that the ad is really aimed at protecting people who earn more than $200,000 per year from paying more in taxes.

Both parties play this negative game, but this year Republicans are playing it more relentlessly and recklessly because they have more to lose and more money to spend. Polls indicate the GOP will lose control of the House, and will lose three or more Senate seats, too.

The ruling party can't talk about the war in Iraq, gas prices, out-of-control spending or huge budget deficits. So Republican leaders decided weeks ago that the best option was to wage personal attacks on Democrats in the most competitive races.

The nonpartisan Annenberg Political Fact Check group (factcheck.org) said last week that House Republicans have spent $41.9 million attacking Democratic opponents, and only $5 million supporting their own candidates, nearly an 8-to-1 negative-to-positive ratio. The House Democrats have spent $18 million and $3.1 million, respectively, for a 5-to-1 ratio. The group found that the GOP commercials have a "pronounced tendency to be petty and personal."

Not all "attack" ads are out of bounds. Some fairly illuminate the decisions facing voters. A tough but in-bounds version of such an ad locally takes on Democratic House challenger Patrick Murphy, the opponent of Republican Rep. Mike Fitzpatrick of Bucks County. The commercial consists of Murphy's appearance on a political talk show, in which the Iraq veteran appears hesitant and unable to say how he would have voted on the war.

This campaign season is the best argument yet for tougher campaign finance regulations. Equal, free broadcast time for candidates could limit these excesses. Instead of allowing a nameless, well-funded group to smear an opponent, let the candidates themselves show their faces and justify their candidacies.

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