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Our Views: Wrong for Georgia
Negative attack ads aimed at those who ignore substance of campaigns
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Are you tired of them yet? We bet you are.

You're watching news or a ballgame on television, or perhaps listening to the radio in your car, and here it comes: "So-and-so doesn't care about you. He is mean to puppies and children. Years ago, he joined the Nazi Party and regularly consults with Osama bin Laden. He got rich stealing from your grandparents and now is taking your children's lunch money. He is lazy, stupid, incompetent, corrupt, ugly and WRONG FOR GEORGIA!"

We exaggerate only slightly here for effect.

Negative campaign ads are not new. Attacks in political campaigns go back to the 19th century, when it was just as personal and mean-spirited. Like the cartoon run against Grover Cleveland accusing him of fathering an illegitimate child: "Ma, ma, where's my pa? Gone to the White House, ha-ha-ha."

But in the age of television and the Internet, the attacks have become nastier and more sinister in an attempt to swing votes. From the Willie Horton ads of the late 1980s through the Clinton and Bush partisan wars and up to today, each election season has candidates reaching new lows in smearing their opponents.

The current race in Georgia for governor is the latest mudslinging war. One candidate is said to be "too corrupt even for Congress." He is accused of being insensitive to rape victims, a charge refuted by most reasonable people, including the victim cited in the ad.

Another is accused of being callous about a child who died in state care based on a careless, flippant remark from years ago. A mailer pictures him in mocked-up cartoon form sitting on an apple pie because his ideas are "pie in the sky."

Sitting on a pie? Really?

They are silly. They are personal. And they are not the kind of discourse that elevates our political debate beyond schoolyard name-calling.

But this is what we get in our modern campaigns. One side starts the ad war and off they both go, painting the race in harsh tones of black and white instead of the nuances of gray closer to reality.

We see it not only in Georgia but nationwide, where debates about witches and other nonsense drown out serious discussions about policies and philosophies.

As always, we would like to see campaigns focus on substance. Two candidates with varied experience and different ideas should be able to compare their ideas as honored opponents. Their ads should offer details on what they plan to do in office and why their leadership is what we need.

So why do we instead get ugly campaigns? Because the negative ads and the ugly slurs are the impressions many voters take with them into the polls.

Ideally, voting should be a cognitive decision. We should be weighing the candidates' qualifications, experience and plans against each other and selecting the one who best represents what we want. What they have done in their past should matter to some extent, if relevant. But every youthful indiscretion or minor slip-up shouldn't disqualify them. We should expect our leaders to be human, like us, with a past that includes both successes and failures.

But for too many of us, frivolous factors play into the decision. How they comb their hair, their family status and other trivial concerns get in the way. Emotional connections, positive and negative, drive many voters toward one candidate and away from another. It is a decision based less on thoughts and more on feelings.

These are the voters targeted by negative ads. The idea is to create unpleasant thoughts about one's foe while packaging their guy as the paragon of all virtues as we watch him chatting up seniors, playing with the grandkids and petting his dog as he walks along a wooded path. "One of us" not "one of them."

This is the same marketing strategy used to package consumer products. In many cases, the ads are created by the same people. The idea that drinking this soda or buying that car makes you feel good about yourself is the same thing at play in political commercials. They seek to create "brand identity," where one candidate is meant to represent who we are and what we stand for, and the other guy is just the opposite in every way.

Such ad campaigns often are undertaken on the advice of political consultants, hired gunslingers who employ scorched-earth tactics to get their clients elected and then, win or lose, move on to the next campaign in the next state or election district. In many cases, they don't live in the areas in which the elections are conducted and are not personally affected by the candidates they promote nor any negative fallout from their strategies.

In the real world, all candidates want to do what's right for the people they serve, even if they disagree on the specifics. All have made mistakes in their past, most of those transgressions deserving of forgiveness. It's up to us, the voters, to decide which ones divulge a character flaw or lack of judgment that needs to be considered.

If we want better, more meaningful political campaigns, it starts with voters. When we insist that candidates discuss substantive topics, we'll get more substance. When we ignore personal insults and negative ads, they'll stop filling the airwaves. When we start paying attention to issues that matter, we will get serious, intelligent people seeking office for the right reasons.

Until then, we will continue to get witches, candidates sitting on pies and baseless attack ads that blow smoke in our faces to hide what really matters.

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