When historians tell us about elections, they tend to focus on Big Things, like the candidate’s personality or grand strategy or the mood of the electorate. Sometimes they’ll tell you about a watershed moment, such as when a candidate pulled off a masterful move of verbal jiujitsu (like Lloyd Bentsen telling Dan Quayle, “You, sir, are no Jack Kennedy”), or a momentous political error (Michael Dukakis refusing to endorse the death penalty for an imaginary criminal who raped and killed his wife).
What they tend to skip over are the inane political controversies over whether Candidate A’s attack on Candidate B was unfair, whether Candidate B’s rejoinder misrepresented Candidate A’s attack, and what all the different pundits said each step along the way. Remember "lipstick on a pig"? Or the controversy over Barack Obama’s “bitter cling” comments?
The political slugging match—with the requisite debate about what constitutes a hit below the belt—is as predictable as the ocean tides. This week’s leading political drama—the debate over whether Kentucky Democratic Senate candidate Jack Conway’s “Aqua Buddha” commercial attacking his Republican opponent, Rand Paul, was unfair and ultimately hurt Conway more than Paul—followed the process precisely. This is how it goes in Mad Lib format, with the correct answers in this case followed by an asterisk:
The trailing candidate in a tight race attacks his opponent’s _(alleged past private indiscretion) *____(politically incorrect private comment)_. The opponent, his supporters, and even some high-minded pundits from the opposition team decry the attack for ___(taking the comment or action “out of context”)_______(being irrelevant to substantive policy issues)*______(being “unsubstantiated”)*. Other opposing pundits defend the attack saying ____(the charges are accurate and relevant) ____(stop your whining, your side has been just as mean in the past and “politics ain’t beanbag”)*. Cable-television news, always hungry for a high-volume, low-cost story that can be ginned up by playing a commercial or soundbite and arguing about it instead of doing any actual reporting, argues vociferously about whether the attack was ____(fair)* __(effective)*. The candidate who was initially attacked and his surrogates go on offense, repeatedly claiming the attack shows his opponent’s ____(desperation)*__(dishonesty)*___(insanity).
And so it has gone in Kentucky. Jason Zengerle reported in GQ in August that while in college Rand Paul belonged to a blasphemous secret society. A former female classmate of Paul’s told Zengerle that after she refused to smoke pot with them, Paul and a fellow member forced her to bow down in a creek in worship of “Aqua Buddha.” Conway, figuring such antics might go over poorly in a conservative state, cut an unintentionally hilarious commercial with the arch movie-trailer narrator’s tone used in attack ads and a Buddha statue in the background, taking the idea that Paul worships false idols, or at least Asian deities, a bit too seriously. (The pothead reference to “Buddha,” as a code name for marijuana, apparently escaped Conway and all the pundits.)
Even some left-leaning pundits, like Jonathan Chait of The New Republic, complained that the ad was inappropriate. “The ugliest, most illiberal political ad of the year may be this one,” wrote Chait. “It comes perilously close to saying that non-belief in Christianity is a disqualification for public office.” Other pundits argued that the ad, which contained no demonstrable falsehoods, was no worse than the personal and misleading attacks that Republicans have launched this cycle. “If the other side is bombing the hell out of me, I’m not going to sit there wringing my hands about collateral damage,” counters UCLA law professor and political blogger Jonathan Zasloff. “It wouldn’t even make it on the Top 100 of conservative outrages in this election cycle alone ... For the last 30 years, the Republican Party has decided to make religion a test for political office ... And now, it is just shocked, shocked, that one of its candidates, who is cynically playing religion for votes, is confronted with his own actual record.” (Emphasis in original.)
Paul started in defensive mode, throwing together a group of Christian leaders, one of whom had not seen the ad, to defend his Christian credentials and cut a hokey ad saying he “keeps Christ in his heart” and accusing Conway of “bearing false witness.” Paul called Conway’s ad unfair, and national Christian conservative groups rallied to his side, but seemed to have turned the ungentlemanly accusation back on him when he refused to shake Conway’s hand after their debate, and threatened to skip their next candidate forum. But as Democrats, such as Missouri Sen. Claire McCaskill, criticized the ad, Republicans went further on the offensive. The National Republican Senatorial Committee cut an ad splicing together the cable-news talking heads denouncing Conway’s Aqua Buddha ad as “repulsive” and “appalling.” (Republican consultant Alex Castellanos squeezed two of the GOP talking points into one phrase by saying Conway “is so desperate to win that he’ll use unsubstantiated charges.”) Polls conducted since the ad was released show that Paul is still in the lead.
The conventional wisdom is now coalescing that the Conway ad hurt him more than it hurt Paul. “The fabled Aqua Buddha may not be quite the lucky totem Jack Conway was hoping for,” quips The New York Times’s Ashley Parker. Nor were Obama’s comments about the lipstick-wearing pig actually enough to save John McCain, McCain’s best efforts to the contrary notwithstanding. Nor was Obama’s riff on the Pennsylvanians who “get bitter, they cling to guns or religion,” damaging enough to make Hillary Clinton the Democratic nominee. Even a lot of the reporters fanning the flames of those controversies would privately admit that they were diversions from the real issues at stake in the elections. But the media seem to think that we have to make a fuss about these things when they happen. What if, like much of the public, we ignored them? Alas, I doubt we’ll ever find out.