Skip to main content
Part of complete coverage from

Mudslinging campaigns hurt the country

By Bob Greene, CNN Contributor
September 2, 2012 -- Updated 1426 GMT (2226 HKT)
Bob Greene says the fall campaign will bring more negative ads.
Bob Greene says the fall campaign will bring more negative ads.
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Bob Greene: Political campaigns resemble warfare's mutually assured destruction
  • He says politicians believe the only way to win is by using below-the-belt tactics
  • A poll showed that Americans take an increasingly dim view of negative campaigns, candidates
  • Greene: When the country loses decency, respect, it loses something essential

Editor's note: CNN contributor Bob Greene is a bestselling author whose 25 books include "Once Upon a Town: The Miracle of the North Platte Canteen" and "Duty: A Father, His Son, and the Man Who Won the War."

(CNN) -- There is a phrase that has long been used in discussing nuclear warfare:

Mutual assured destruction.

What it means is that if various enemies develop and use the most powerful and harmful weapons available, everyone will lose. Everyone will die.

National politics is not literal warfare, although its practitioners like to use the language of combat:

War rooms.

Battleground states.

Attack ads.

And as the political world shifts its focus from one national convention to the other, a sentiment has been building that this year's presidential campaign may turn out to be the dirtiest ever.

You've already seen it in the wall-to-wall television commercials during the primary season; with the fall campaign shifting into overdrive, you can expect the tone of the advertising to make sewage seem pristine by comparison. As Peggy Noonan wrote in The Wall Street Journal: "With all the PAC money floating around, we've entered the Golden Age of mudslinging."

Obama campaign: Romney ads 'dishonest'
Campaign ad links Romney to cancer death
Nasty campaign ads flood your TV

It's not that the candidates are incapable of high-mindedness; they are extraordinarily bright. But in recent years the mantra of high-octane campaigns has been that below-the-belt tactics work, and the rationalization has been that a candidate can't accomplish anything worthy if he or she doesn't get elected in the first place.

Jim Rutenberg, in The New York Times, under the headline "The Lowest Common Denominator and the 2012 Race for President," wrote last month: "The thinking was that the two presidential candidates, both with Harvard degrees, would finally use their intellectual prowess to discuss the nation's challenges seriously." That, he wrote, is looking like an unrealistic expectation, and thus "Strategists on both sides are pondering which campaign is best served by the vitriol."

From time to time there are public calls for a truce in the invective. It never seems to stick. Carol E. Lee, writing in The Wall Street Journal: "Neither side shows any signs of curtailing the negativity. ... One effect of such early negativity is that both candidates figure to be battered by November, and voters could become fatigued earlier."

Why does this matter? With politics more of a spectator sport than ever, what is the real harm in its devolving into an only slightly more refined version of mud wrestling?

The harm is that it's a difficult shift to go from mud wrestler to statesman once the votes are counted. The metaphorical eye-gouging and groin-kicking of take-no-prisoners campaigns may be effective in grabbing voters' attention -- increasingly, watching a presidential campaign play out is like slowing down to gape at a particularly ugly auto accident. But there are indications that the voters are getting wise to the game, and becoming disillusioned with it.

In a front-page story in USA Today before the conventions began, Susan Page reported that a USA Today/Gallup Poll "finds Americans taking a decidedly more negative view of the presidential candidates and the tenor of their campaigns than they did four years ago."

Some of the findings of the poll: Voters are critical of both candidates for making unfair attacks on each other. To an extent not seen in at least the last six election seasons, voters say that they view both the Republican and Democratic parties unfavorably. When, in 2008, potential voters were asked if both candidates would make good presidents, 25% said yes. This year, asked the same question, only 12% said yes.

And that is the danger of mutual assured destruction, politics-style. In warfare, the hoped-for impact of the knowledge that either side could annihilate the other was to preserve a state of peace, however strained or uneasy -- it was, and is, a doctrine of deterrence. In politics, it doesn't seem to inhibit the combatants.

A willingness to use any means to win an election will inevitably, in the end, produce a president. But then the president will have to lead a nation that has turned darkly cynical about the entire process.

There is a publication that has none of the glitz or dinner-party cachet of the national newspapers or television news networks, but it reaches an audience that dwarfs theirs. The publication is the AARP Bulletin -- circulation 22 million -- and its editor, Jim Toedtman, recently wrote an editorial that puts all of this in measured perspective.

Under the headline "Leaders, Try Greatness, Not Meanness," Toedtman said that strategists for the opposing sides are displaying "no interest in compromise," and quoted Allegheny College President James H. Mullen Jr. in characterizing the current process as "a disgraceful stew of invective ... a continuing contest in which each side of the partisan divide sees itself as right and the other as evil, uncaring or, worst of all, unpatriotic."

Does it have to be this way? The editorial recalls John Adams, who "could just as easily have been talking about today when he wrote in 1776 of his fears that the Continental Congress' decisions would be dictated 'by noise, not sense; by meanness, not greatness; by ignorance, not learning; by contracted hearts, not large souls.'"

Adams wrote, "There must be decency and respect and veneration introduced for persons of authority of every rank or we are undone. In popular government, this is our only way.'"

When the country loses that, it loses something essential. Just what is it that we are throwing away? Toedtman's editorial concludes: "Decency, respect and veneration produced compromise and a foundation that has endured for 236 years. We are surrounded by noise, meanness and ignorance. The measure for our leaders must be their ability to rediscover that proven formula of sense, greatness and learning."

But what political consultant would waste his client's money trying to fit those sentiments into a 30-second commercial?

Meanwhile, Election Day is less than 10 weeks away.

Follow @CNNOpinion on Twitter.

Join us at Facebook/CNNOpinion.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Bob Greene.

ADVERTISEMENT
Part of complete coverage on
August 28, 2014 -- Updated 1516 GMT (2316 HKT)
Whitney Barkley says many for-profit colleges deceive students, charge exorbitant tuitions and make false promises
August 29, 2014 -- Updated 1434 GMT (2234 HKT)
Mark O'Mara says the time has come to decide whether we really want police empowered to shoot those they believe are 'fleeing felons'
August 28, 2014 -- Updated 1432 GMT (2232 HKT)
Bill Frelick says a tool of rights workers is 'naming and shaming,' ensuring accountability for human rights crimes in conflicts. But what if wrongdoers know no shame?
August 29, 2014 -- Updated 0243 GMT (1043 HKT)
Jay Parini says, no, a little girl shouldn't fire an Uzi, but none of should have easy access to guns: The Second Amendment was not written to give us such a 'right,' no matter what the NRA says
August 28, 2014 -- Updated 1340 GMT (2140 HKT)
Terra Ziporyn Snider says many adolescents suffer chronic sleep deprivation, which can indeed lead to safety problems. Would starting school an hour later be so wrong?
August 29, 2014 -- Updated 1330 GMT (2130 HKT)
Peggy Drexler says after all the celebrity divorces, it's tempting to ask the question. But there are still considerable benefits to getting hitched
August 29, 2014 -- Updated 1849 GMT (0249 HKT)
The death of Douglas McAuthur McCain, the first American killed fighting for ISIS, highlights the pull of Syria's war for Western jihadists, writes Peter Bergen.
August 26, 2014 -- Updated 2242 GMT (0642 HKT)
Former ambassador to Syria Robert Ford says the West should be helping moderates in the Syrian armed opposition end the al-Assad regime and form a government to focus on driving ISIS out
August 27, 2014 -- Updated 1321 GMT (2121 HKT)
Ruben Navarrette says a great country does not deport thousands of vulnerable, unaccompanied minors who fled in fear for their lives
August 27, 2014 -- Updated 1319 GMT (2119 HKT)
Robert McIntyre says Congress is the culprit for letting Burger King pay lower taxes after merging with Tim Hortons.
August 26, 2014 -- Updated 2335 GMT (0735 HKT)
Wesley Clark says the U.S. can offer support to its Islamic friends in the region most threatened by ISIS, but it can't fight their war
August 27, 2014 -- Updated 1126 GMT (1926 HKT)
Jeff Yang says the tech sector's diversity numbers are embarrassing and the big players need to do more.
August 26, 2014 -- Updated 2053 GMT (0453 HKT)
America's painful struggle with racism has often brought great satisfaction to the country's rivals, critics, and foes. The killing of Michael Brown and its tumultuous aftermath has been a bonanza.
August 26, 2014 -- Updated 2019 GMT (0419 HKT)
Ed Bark says in this Emmy year, broadcasters CBS, ABC and PBS can all say they matched or exceeded HBO. These days that's no small feat
August 26, 2014 -- Updated 1919 GMT (0319 HKT)
Rick Martin says the death of Robin Williams brought back memories of his own battle facing down depression as a young man
August 26, 2014 -- Updated 1558 GMT (2358 HKT)
David Perry asks: What's the best way for police officers to handle people with psychiatric disabilities?
August 25, 2014 -- Updated 1950 GMT (0350 HKT)
Julian Zelizer says it's not crazy to think Mitt Romney would be able to end up at the top of the GOP ticket in 2016
August 25, 2014 -- Updated 2052 GMT (0452 HKT)
Roxanne Jones and her girlfriends would cheer from the sidelines for the boys playing Little League. But they really wanted to play. Now Mo'ne Davis shows the world that girls really can throw.
August 25, 2014 -- Updated 1629 GMT (0029 HKT)
Peter Bergen and Emily Schneider say a YouTube video apparently posted by ISIS seems to show that the group has a surveillance drone, highlighting a new reality: Terrorist groups have technology once only used by states
August 25, 2014 -- Updated 2104 GMT (0504 HKT)
Kimberly Norwood is a black mom who lives in an affluent neighborhood not far from Ferguson, but she has the same fears for her children as people in that troubled town do
August 22, 2014 -- Updated 2145 GMT (0545 HKT)
It apparently has worked for France, say Peter Bergen and Emily Schneider, but carries uncomfortable risks. When it comes to kidnappings, nations face grim options.
August 26, 2014 -- Updated 1727 GMT (0127 HKT)
John Bare says the Ice Bucket Challenge signals a new kind of activism and peer-to-peer fund-raising.
August 22, 2014 -- Updated 1231 GMT (2031 HKT)
James Dawes says calling ISIS evil over and over again could very well make it harder to stop them.
August 24, 2014 -- Updated 0105 GMT (0905 HKT)
As the inquiry into the shooting of Michael Brown continues, critics question the prosecutor's impartiality.
August 22, 2014 -- Updated 2247 GMT (0647 HKT)
Newt Gingrich says it's troubling that a vicious group like ISIS can recruit so many young men from Britain.
August 21, 2014 -- Updated 1450 GMT (2250 HKT)
David Weinberger says Twitter and other social networks have been vested with a responsibility, and a trust, they did not ask for.
August 22, 2014 -- Updated 1103 GMT (1903 HKT)
John Inazu says the slogan "We are Ferguson" is meant to express empathy and solidarity. It's not true: Not all of us live in those circumstances. But we all made them.
August 22, 2014 -- Updated 1223 GMT (2023 HKT)
Retired Lt. Gen. Mark Hertling says he learned that the territory ISIS wants to control is amazingly complex.
August 20, 2014 -- Updated 1951 GMT (0351 HKT)
Cerue Garlo says Liberia is desperate for help amid a Ebola outbreak that has touched every aspect of life.
August 21, 2014 -- Updated 1742 GMT (0142 HKT)
Eric Liu says Republicans who want to restrict voting may win now, but the party will suffer in the long term.
August 21, 2014 -- Updated 1538 GMT (2338 HKT)
Jay Parini: Jesus, Pope and now researchers agree: Wealth decreases our ability to sympathize with the poor.
August 21, 2014 -- Updated 1200 GMT (2000 HKT)
Judy Melinek offers a medical examiner's perspective on what happens when police kill people like Michael Brown.
August 19, 2014 -- Updated 2203 GMT (0603 HKT)
It used to be billy clubs, fire hoses and snarling German shepherds. Now it's armored personnel carriers and flash-bang grenades, writes Kara Dansky.
August 20, 2014 -- Updated 1727 GMT (0127 HKT)
Maria Haberfeld: People who are unfamiliar with police work can reasonably ask, why was an unarmed man shot so many times, and why was deadly force used at all?
ADVERTISEMENT