Ducking the punches

If you’re like us, you’re sick of political ads on television. You watched Phil Angelides and Steve Westly, both pretty good guys otherwise, do everything in their power to make each other look like nasty polluters, wetlands-fillers, tax-hiking despots, you name it—whatever demeaning description they could hang on the slenderest of threads and convey in 15 seconds.

Westly and Angelides don’t really feel that way about each other, of course. The day after the election, in fact, Westly endorsed Angelides, calling him “a brilliant man” and saying he was “committed to environmental values.” It was if all that disparagement had been just—well, you know, politics.

But that’s the problem. It is just politics, which is to say it’s a calculated effort to manipulate the voters to see opposition candidates in a negative light, even if the charges are so tenuous as to be untrue. And it works. Political consultants swear by attack ads. You can’t win a major statewide race in California without slinging mud, they insist.

But it’s a debilitating process. It forces politicians to lie and turns voters against the system. Those who see through the ads become cynical about the political process, while those who don’t see through them make their voting decisions based on lies and near-lies.

It’s not just the Democrats, of course. No sooner had the Democratic primary race for governor ended than Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger started his own fight. His first parry is a dubious attack ad characterizing Angelides as someone who wants to take the state “backwards” to a time “of soaring taxes.” Oh yeah? When was that? Best we can remember, the only governor to raise taxes in the past couple of decades was Republican Pete Wilson, who increased taxes on the wealthy slightly—from 9 to 11 percent, later rescinded—to eliminate a chronic budget deficit, the very thing Angelides proposes to do.

Public policy is complex. It can’t be explained in 15-second TV ads. It’s up to us the voters to see past the negativity and manipulation and educate ourselves about the politicians’ core values. It’s a shame we have to slog through so much muck to get there, but we get the leaders we deserve, and if we want good ones we need to do the hard work of democracy.