There has been much written recently about the potential risks of over-heated primaries. In the face of increasingly sharp attacks in the presidential and gubernatorial races, Democratic party loyalists rightly cringe, calling on candidates to tone things down. Worried that all the name-calling will come back to haunt the eventual nominee, many activists decry attack advertising and blog wars as providing comfort (and fodder) for the enemy.
History shows, however, that the hot furnace of a primary contest can have positive effects as well. By running the gauntlet of a tough race, a candidate will theoretically be stronger and more thoroughly vetted for the general election in November.
But there is another consequence of over-heated primaries about which candidates seem largely oblivious. It has to do with the nature of many attacks and the broader philosophical context in which they occur. Chris Fitzsimon's current column at NC Policy Watch, helped me think this through. It deals with Richard Moore's use of Perdue's votes in the 1998 legislative session.
The artist formerly and once again known as Prince would be proud. State Treasurer Richard Moore and Lieutenant Governor Beverly Perdue are campaigning like its 1999. Moore’s latest commercial attacks Perdue for the 1998-1999 state budget she negotiated and supported as Senate Appropriations Chair.
The ad says Perdue “gave tax cuts to the wealthy, pushed spending out of control, creating a billion dollar budget disaster.” An analysis by the Charlotte Observer points out that laying all that on Perdue is quite a stretch, though it is true that she voted for a budget that cut the inheritance tax and increased spending.
But the budget also ended the regressive state sales tax on food and gave teachers a 6.5 percent pay increase as part of a plan to raise teacher pay to the national average. The N.C. Budget Tax Center’s analysis showed that more than 80 percent of the billion dollar budget increase was spent on salary increases, education, and construction projects.
It is not the first time the budget passed by state lawmakers in 1998 has been the subject of a political attack in a governor’s race. In his 2004 reelection campaign, Governor Mike Easley attacked Republican challenger Patrick Ballantine for his support of the 1998 budget too, claiming that the “big spending” was the cause of the state’s budget problems in 2001.
The current flap over the 1998 budget, much like Easley’s attacks in the 2004 race, is most troubling because it reinforces the misperception that lawmakers always spend too much money, that the state budget is out of control. (Emphasis added.)
Most attack ads seem designed to pander to conservative voters here in North Carolina. (The only exception I'm aware of involves mud-slinging around tuition increases, where both Moore and Perdue want to take credit for being champions of helping to keep higher education affordable.) What we hear, in effect, are Democrats adopting the Republican agenda, slowly but surely helping to drag the center to the right with every single attack. "My opponent is one of those irresponsible tax-and-spenders, and that's why you should vote for me."
It's not just in the gubernatorial primary where we see this risky slide to the right. Hillary Clinton's infamous "3:00 am" commercial tells voters to be very afraid, and to vote for a candidate that won't hesitate to start another war, before breakfast if necessary.
I don't have an easy answer. Attack advertising works, especially when it paints the opponent as a big spender, soft-on crime, or insufficiently xenophobic. It appeals to greed and fear. But along the way, it also tells voters that the first priority of government should be cutting taxes. If that's the prime directive, you can be certain we will never arrive at the excellence in government that we should really be demanding.