Where have all the upbeat political ads gone? Some of the latest commercials from George W. Bush and John Kerry are steeped in negativity. One Bush ad features Kerry windsurfing, blowing from side to side. A narrator says Kerry "voted for the Iraq war, opposed it, supported it and now opposes it again." It ends with, "John Kerry. Whichever way the wind blows."
The Kerry campaign's counterattack ad says the Bush spot makes light of the deaths in Iraq. "One thousand U.S. casualties," an announcer says. "Two Americans beheaded just this week. The Pentagon admits terrorists are pouring into Iraq. In the face of the Iraq quagmire, George Bush's answer is to run a juvenile and tasteless attack ad."
Somehow, America has lost sight of voting for someone in a presidential race, rather than against someone. We think the only way to win is to knock the other guy down.
Have Americans become more negative, or is our problem a lack of candidates who are capable of delivering an optimistic message? Ronald Reagan was a master at delivering a wry comment or a quick joke. Bill Clinton can still work a room and leave everyone feeling better off than when they entered it.
Perhaps Bush and Kerry lack the personality to pull off a truly outstanding positive political ad. Bush, with his mangled phrasings—"Our enemies are innovative and resourceful, and so are we. They never stop thinking about new ways to harm our country and our people, and neither do we"—hardly inspires confidence. And Kerry has been long-winded on the stump and appears aloof. Both come from backgrounds of wealth and privilege, and they seem out of place when they try to look like men of the people.
In a time of war, and with the economy still rocky, surely President Bush would want to offer some sort of positive message. Isn't it easier for the incumbent to put out a message of hope and optimism because he is already coming from a position of strength? It's more the challenger's job to base his candidacy on offering an alternative.
Instead, we have just the opposite. Bush may have started out with some positive ads, but he quickly went negative. Meanwhile, Kerry's messages have been more upbeat until he recently ratcheted up the negative. Even the Democratic National Convention was hopeful. It wasn't so long ago that Barack Obama said the true genius of America is "a faith in simple dreams, an insistence on small miracles ... that we can say what we think, write what we think, without hearing a sudden knock on the door."
There is still room for positive, hopeful political advertising. Politicians need to deliver it, and the media and America have to be ready to listen to it. Today, Reagan's "Morning in America" spot would lose a competition for space on the front pages of America's newspapers to the Swift Boat Veterans for Truth.
In some ways, voters are as guilty as the politicians. They say they don't like negative ads, but they still believe them and are willing to support the groups that air them. Swift Boat Veterans went from an underfunded operation to a group that has raised nearly $7 million thanks to the free publicity.
If the only way to win an election is to punch the other guy in the face, then America is less of a democracy than I thought.