One really unfortunate element of every election I can recall is the trashing of the opposing candidate. It’s easy to fall into the trap–I’ve found myself doing it on more than one occasion. I still recall, with some shame, expressing my low opinion of Larry Conrad during his run for Governor (youngsters reading this can google him). When I met Larry later, and worked on civic projects with him, I found him to be entirely admirable. Campaigns are notoriously bad at conveying the “real person,” and somehow, in the heat of battle, it’s not enough to disagree with a candidate’s policies or worldview. He or she must be a sub-optimal human as well.
I thought about this when I read a recent screed about President Obama, darkly suggesting–among other things–that his failure to release his Harvard grade transcript was probable evidence of substandard performance. (This is a pretty standard way of raising the issue of race–after all, aren’t all black people beneficiaries of affirmative action?)
I happened to attend an academic conference a few years ago where one of Obama’s professors shared his opinion that then-newly-minted Senator Obama was one of the best students he’d ever taught, and that he expected him to go far. Of course, it isn’t necessary to rely on a former instructor’s offhand comment–as any law school graduate knows, it takes superior grades to earn even a lowly position on a Law Review. Dummies simply don’t become Editor-in-Chief of the Harvard Law Review. They also don’t hold adjunct professorships at the intellectually rigorous University of Chicago Law School.
The problem with these sorts of gratuitous slurs is that they debase political debate. The liberals who questioned Romney’s business accomplishments were similarly out of line. I opposed Romney and Ryan not because I thought their experience and talents were exaggerated, but because I believed they drew dramatically wrong lessons from those experiences, and that their policies would be very damaging to the country. I also opposed their views on women’s rights and gay rights.
I have friends who opposed Obama because they wanted him to wage war against Iran, or were opposed to the Affordable Care Act or to progressive taxation (aka “redistribution”). I find their positions illogical and wrongheaded, but entirely legitimate. More important, those are the sort of disagreements we need to discuss, they are the contending prescriptions campaigns should debate and defend–the kinds of arguments that can be illuminated by history and empirical evidence.
Accusing an officeholder of doing a bad job is fair. Accusing him of being a bad or substandard person simply because we dislike his policies or the “team” he plays for is not.
Such ad hominem attacks are an admission by those who level them that they can’t argue the merits of the issues.