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Toxic politics 

& & by Jerry Hughes & & & &





The good news: It appears the American electorate will survive yet another mean season of highly toxic contemporary political campaigns. The bad news: The warning lights, signaling lethal dosage levels, are starting to flash. The ugly news: Short of a full-scale voter revolt, the electorate is in danger of slip-sliding into a comatose state.


Since the classic 1960 Kennedy/Nixon debates, there has been a steady decline in voter participation. Actually, there was a slight increase in the 1992 levels over the 1988 levels, but that is attributable to the Perot factor, and that seems to be confirmed by the continuing declines in the 1996 and the projected 2000 levels. Equally disturbing is the fact that more than 80 million Americans watched the 1980 Reagan/Carter debates; less than 40 million viewers tuned in to the recently aired Bush/Gore debates. The available data suggests that over the last 30-plus years, the citizenry has passed through a rollercoaster ride of emotional stages concerning their political system, beginning with disillusionment, then working through anger, indifference, boredom and now settling into feelings of irrelevancy. Clearly, the political state of the union seems deeply troubled.





"Logical consequences are the scarecrows of fools


and the beacons of wisemen."


-- T. H. Huxley





ypical contemporary political campaigns seem to ring hollow. Crafted by a confusing combination of hired guns, mind-numbing spin masters, prestigious PR gurus, illusive pollsters and carnivorous campaign managers, and fueled by sleazy soft money from PACs, they generate a predictable product. Quite often, they are characterized by most, if not all, of the following descriptions: simplistic/shallow; mean-spirited/personal; confusing/evasive; demeaning/offensive.


Sadly, these prepackaged, generic models come in one-size-fits-all and can be easily adapted to fit any character-challenged or deer-caught-in-the-headlights mode candidates. Anyone want to hear one more candidate promise to save the dams? To protect Social Security and keep the costs of prescription drugs down? Generalities spawned by polls dictate what the 30-second mush messages will tell us over and over and over again.


Usually, these prototypical political candidates and their campaigns emulate the trash-talking, ego-inflated athletes that are currently soiling our sports scene. These self-anointed statesmen tend to exercise little or no respect for their opponents and are willing to employ any and all questionable tactics to defeat their rivals. This despite the fact that we have been amply warned throughout the ages that, "What we sow, we shall reap."


The bitter harvests of the political grapes of wrath are all around us. Watch the attack ads, and then understand why John or Jane Q. Citizen have such negative perceptions. So let's show the voters clear differences on positions, but deep six the innuendoes and character assassinations. Civility and fairness are not only the boundaries of proper conduct, but they are also a substantive test for the right to serve.





"Stories of past courage can teach, they can inspire and


they can offer hope; but they cannot supply courage itself.


For this, each man must look into his own soul."


-- J. F. Kennedy





n the annals of the recent memories of Pacific Northwest voters, there are at least four illustrative examples of men and women, both Republicans and Democrats, who choose to implement a code of honor and dignity in the exercise of their campaigns. U.S. Senator John McCain and outgoing Washington state Secretary of State Ralph Munro both, in the recent political past, have run exemplary races. Noticeably absent were the common negative campaign ingredients: sugar-coated cornpone literature, the choking rhetoric, the malignant misrepresentations and the jugular personal attacks. Currently, Maria Cantwell, former congresswomen and candidate for the U.S. Senate, and incumbent County Commissioner John Roskelley are orchestrating equally impressive campaigns of substance and dignity (although, unfortunately, Cantwell has had to answer some of the attacks leveled at her in kind in recent days).


These candidates have clearly traversed the political high road of issue and position identification and avoided the political low road of guttural campaigning. What is noteworthy is that all four of these politicians of character chose the honorable political course, even though they themselves were targets of mean-spirited, below-the-belt personal attacks by their opponents and/or supporters of their opponents. It seems probable that Maria Cantwell and John Roskelley will succeed in their election efforts. This should be viewed as a ringing endorsement of both their character and their campaign integrity.


Meanwhile, we have hit a new low in the name of George Nethercutt, in which 5th District residents received a divisive and mean-spirited mailer featuring long-ago discredited information that charged Tom Keefe with being -- you guessed it -- divisive and mean-spirited. The mailer literally has garbage spewing from a caricature of Keefe's mouth. Some of the most veteran political watchers in the district are calling it the worst thing they've ever seen -- and this comes from a sitting congressman who should have a 90 percent shot at reelection.





"The law often allows what honor forbids."


-- Spartacus 111, by J. Saurin





olitics is the Sword of Damocles, and the citizens of this nation cannot ignore or despise it without paying a very dear price. The United States' governmental model is truly the best conceptual one in the world, but it is in desperate need of some substantive reforms.


Politics can be rough, but it should also be civil. Campaigns should expose position and issue differences between candidates, but lies and calculated misrepresentations are out of bounds. The office seeker needs to be thoughtful and reflective, but canned mush is unpalatable. No one seeking to serve should allow campaign directors to package him or her into a generic all-things-to-all-voters blob.


Politicians, you serve a noble cause, so trust the voter. Resist the campaign advisers, let the voters see the uniqueness of personality and character that is you, and reveal your deep, heartfelt beliefs. Then we just might experience a renewed faith in the genius that is this historic republic.





& & & lt;i & Jerry Hughes is a former Democratic state Senator from Spokane. He now teaches political science at Gonzaga University. & lt;/i & & lt;/center &

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