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In Defense of the Indefensible: The Value of Truthful Negative Ads

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Recently, a close friend and early political supporter of mine confided that she would no longer contribute to political campaigns that engaged in negative advertising.

And really, who could blame her?

Every election season, the television airwaves are barraged by a seemingly endless succession of 30-second jeremiads that manipulate the facts and embitter the public. Worse yet, many of the most vicious advertisements are paid for by shady, vanilla-named cartels who've maneuvered through loopholes in the Swiss-cheese-like election finance law to poison our politics without ever revealing the sources of their funding.

But all negative ads aren't equally offensive.  Indeed, some are critical to preserving public confidence in our political system.

Sound counterintuitive? A political campaign featuring only positive advertisements that focus on "the issues" might seem to be ideal.

But sometimes, the gauziest, most emotion-laded, goose-bump-inspiring advertisements can be the most deceptive, and can do the greatest disservice to the public dialogue. As with marketing for any product, positive political ads tend to exaggerate a candidate's merits while ignoring his flaws.  And the worst of them can paint a thoroughly misleading -- or sometimes even completely inaccurate -- picture of an official's character, virtues and record on issues of import.

While the press can serve a mitigating role -- calling out false claims and exposing whitewashes -- a large and continually growing proportion of voters no longer follows the mainstream media, and many that do no longer trust what they see. Further, on the local level, decimated budgets have crippled the ability of many daily newspapers to engage in the necessary level of scrutiny of candidates and campaigns.

Accordingly, it's often up to truthful negative ads to expose corruption and hypocrisy and to properly educate the public on the worth and merits of particular candidates.

A prototypical example of a valuable negative political ad can be seen running hourly in my home state of Kentucky, which elects governors in off-years, such as 2011. For those of you not blessed to live in the Bluegrass State, you can watch it here:

This ad has many elements of what we good-government types despise most about modern politics. However, the advertisement's educational value far outweighs any initial, instinctive revulsion.

First, take the reference to high-stakes gambling engaged in by the ad's target, GOP gubernatorial nominee and state Senate President David Williams. To the uninformed, this might appear to be the dreaded "personal attack"; a critique of someone's private, non-official behavior, particularly when engaging in a manifestly legal activity such as gambling, should normally be out-of-bounds.  Williams' wife, indeed, called the ad "disgusting," arguing that "there's a whole lot better way they could spend their money than to disparage somebody personally."

But here, context is crucial. The debate over expanded gaming at Kentucky racetracks -- and the revenues it would produce -- has emerged during these extraordinarily difficult budget times as the most high-profile, highly-charged political controversy in recent memory.  And as this ad reveals, David Williams has been gambling's most significant opponent in Kentucky, blocking its expansion in the state legislature nearly singlehandedly, claiming it would "not help the moral fiber" of the state. The fact that Williams had incurred $36,000 of gambling losses at out-of-state casinos -- the very corporate entities most threatened by the possible competition of Kentucky gaming -- raises very significant, legitimate and appropriate questions for voters.

Second, Williams' purchase of a $16,000 widescreen television with taxpayer funds might seem to be a brouhaha over a triviality, a drop in the bucket of the state's multi-billion-dollar budget. But again, the circumstances are critical.  Williams has characterized himself as an advocate for small government -- at one point invoking John F. Kennedy's Berlin Wall speech to claim "I am a tea partier" -- and in that context proposed $46 million in public education cuts. That he spent tens of thousands of taxpayer dollars to refurbish his office during tough budget times belies his self-labeling and offers voters a clear picture of the Senate President's priorities and record of fiscal conservatism.

Of course, the most troubling aspect of this advertisement is its sponsorship: the mysterious "Kentucky Family Values PAC." (I assume that the "Mom and Apple Pie PAC" was engaged elsewhere.) Like many Americans, I despise the emergence of these shady syndicates with their anonymous financiers, and I believe that the Supreme Court's decision in Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission, which has enabled their proliferation, is the worst thing that has happened to our democracy since, well, Bush v. Gore.  But as long as this legal construct remains in place, it would be foolish for one side to unilaterally disarm.

What's critical, then, in judging an advertisement within our flawed political system is its veracity. And significantly, each statement in the above ad is incontrovertibly true. Williams' response -- "I really don't think they're saying anything to respond to" -- underlines the fact that there is no adequate response to these devastating truths.

The mainstream media, of course, had covered both hypocrisies extensively. But early election polls revealed that not only did most Kentuckians not know about Williams' profligate spending, but as of this June -- after the GOP gubernatorial primary -- nearly 30 percent of Kentucky voters still didn't even know enough about Williams to form an opinion.  Accordingly, the ad offers a meaningful educational tool for the significant percentage of voters who don't pay attention to the local news.

My own political experience sheds a different light on the critical role of campaign ads. In 2007, I was involved in a seven-way primary race for Kentucky Governor. At the urging of the state party chair, each of the candidates had signed a "unity pledge" not to run attack ads against our primary opponents.

Again, on the surface, this seemed like a constructive strategy.  The trouble was that there were a few candidates in the race with serious vulnerabilities that undoubtedly would have been exposed in a general election. The original frontrunner, for example, had been plagued by several ethical scandals and, at the time, was being investigated for a new campaign finance law violation.

My own campaign, meanwhile, had gained no traction.  I was advised that I had two options: go on the attack and establish myself as the anti-corruption candidate (while risking the fallout for violating the unity pledge), or sit back, run positive ads and lose gracefully.

I chose Door #3.  I withdrew from the race and endorsed the other candidate in the primary who I felt shared my good-government values.  And I made clear in our joint press announcement -- the most extensively covered and replayed moment of the primary campaign -- that he was the only top-tier candidate not vulnerable to attack from the incumbent GOP governor in the fall general election.

That candidate, Steve Beshear, surged into the lead and won the primary with more than 40 percent of the vote, thereby avoiding an ugly runoff election.  Today, Governor Beshear is cruising toward reelection, crushing David Williams by 29 points in the most recent polls. His lead, always large, has grown significantly since the above ad hit the airwaves.

And that ethically-challenged candidate whom I feared would capture the nomination if I didn't act?  He later pled guilty to violating campaign finance laws.

I'd love to see our system of electing candidates dramatically reformed, requiring public financing and full disclosure of all political contributions.  I'd prefer that voters choose their elected officials after carefully considering policy statements and records of service.

But as long as the system remains as it is, with 30-second TV ads serving as the principal source of voter information, truthful negative political ads serve a critical balancing function. Unless the declining trend of the daily newspaper is dramatically reversed so that journalists can adequately police political dialogue, these advertisements often can play a valuable educational role for inattentive voters.

So when I'm tempted to scream at my own widescreen (paid for by my own dollars) during the electoral silly season, I'll remind myself that sometimes the truth can be ugly.  But by whatever means they reach the public, the unvarnished facts are too important to be ignored.

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