11 January 2008

In Defense of Long Primaries and Attack Ads

When Thomas Jefferson ran against John Adams for the presidency, they both professed, in letters to each other, that they did not seek the office--that their surrogates were pushing them against their will. Jefferson, especially, repeated this line. Then, less than now, active pursuit of public office--especially one like the American presidency, was viewed as unbecoming.

But Jefferson and Adams and those who succeeded them were not so different from candidates for President now. There continue to be glaring hypocrisies in candidates' politics. Ambition continues to be a driving force. A certain do-gooder idealism is a must.

Maybe the biggest difference between now and then is that we have done away with the facade of indifference and disinterest. Hillary Clinton, John McCain and co., probably don't want the presidency any more than Jefferson or Adams. That we have idealized these men, stripped them of naked ambition, and made them saints of the American past does not change what history has taught us--that they were imperfect men who did the best they could.

Nostalgia for the past should not make us apathetic about the present. The current crop of Republican candidates for President is very talented and capable. The long primary season continues to serve its purpose by highlighting their strengths and weaknesses in a variety of settings. If there is a problem with it, it is that they must spend so much of their time fundraising--we have Senator McCain to thank for that one.

And the supposedly negative, "attack" ads serve their purpose too. Were we to follow the confrontation-averse Iowans' preference, we would have a bunch of candidates talking only about themselves and past their opponents.

Negative attack ads are a proud American tradition. These, too, we can trace back to Jefferson and Adams and further. There never was a non-partisan time of political peace in which gentlemen politicians abstained from attacking each others records or demonizing each other's politics. It has always happened and will continue to happen. The back and forth dialectic this type of debate produces clarifies each candidates positions. Is John McCain against tax cuts and amnesty? If it weren't for other candidates "attack" ads, we might never know. Would voters prefer that each candidate speak only in the most glowing terms about his/her opponents? How would we ever learn anything about anyone?

Questioning other candidates' positions and politics is how we go about getting at the truth. And no, happy compromise and consensus will never be the order of the day. Not in this country, anyway. Not when American is so sharply divided on immigration, abortion, gay marriage, taxes, education, social stratification, race, etc., etc. In some cases, there is room for political compromise, but in many, as in abortion, one is either for or against. Where, for that matter, would a 3rd party candidate fit in? On every major question that faces the American electorate, Democrats and Republicans take opposing positions. There is no middle ground for a 3rd party candidate to claim.

We, for one, are glad to be done with Iowa and the state's attack-ad-allergy. We don't even have a problem if every or most voter(s) do not pay attention to every debate and primary. Let them tune in to the parts that particularly interest them or when the primaries reach their state. In the meantime, the candidates with their attack ads, reporters with their (hopefully) close examination of records, and pundits with their endless speculation will sort things out. The advantages of a long primary with sharp debate far outweigh the minor annoyance of having to sit through yet another report on how a Barrack Obama supporter made Hillary cry.

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