Political question about candidates' records.

Hi SD,

My question today has arisen after listening to a radio commercial about the Governor’s race in my state. According to the commercial, Candidate A says that Candidate B supported tax increases on the middle class. Another commercial features Candidate B saying that Candidate A does not support Women’s rights, or slashed funding for Women’s causes, or voted “against our teachers.”

My overall question is: what is really happening here? I want to believe that these candidates are not so heartless as their opponents purposely make them sound. But I’m sure these people did not, with a villainous mustache twirl, decide to deliberately support these horrible notions. Did they throw their support behind a bill that was about something unrelated, with the unfortunate side effect of doing the horrible thing?

If it’s the case that this purported support for terrible policy is really easily explained or defended against, why don’t we hear more candidates speak up about it? They could say “Candidate A accuses me of doing X. Here’s what actually happened. I would never do X on purpose–here’s my rationale.”
Whether you agree with this candidate is irrelevant. But it seems like a softball to defend against such an egregious accusation that can’t possibly be true. Very few politicians are evil, and I can’t see why more people would strike hard back against an exaggerated accusation. It benefits the responding candidate because they come off as honest and thorough. It could detract from the attacking candidate because their accusation could directly be shown to be a mischaracterization.

I feel people want honesty. Do people still think that candidates are flawless or need to be flawless?

I hope I’m phrasing my question correctly! Thanks, SD.


Legislators often attach unrelated things to bills. The candidates in question are likely not against the causes you mentioned, but voted down the legislation to stop riders on the bills that they strongly opposed.

Attack ads of this sort appeal to gut emotional reactions and easily fit the 30 second soundbite for television advertising.

To refute such an attack requires and appeal to a more logical part of the voters’ psyche, something that does not so easily fit the 30 second soundbite model of politicking. And refuting an attack ad by explaining what specifically happened simply brings more attention to the emotionally charged language in the attack ad, generally a losing proposition.

Or they did the thing but disagree on how it should be characterized. There isn’t necessarily a factual dispute at the heart of this kind of argument. Candidate A considers the tax bill to have imposed a middle class tax hike, but candidate B considers it to have closed loopholes to make a fairer tax system, etc.

Plus, there’s the likelihood of such accusations, however wild, pushing the debate agenda on to the accuser’s preferred territory rather than the accused’s, and putting the accused look defensive and “embattled” rather than positive/assertive/optimistic.

As the old story has it “Sure it’s untrue - but let’s get him to deny it”.

The simplest answer is pay absolutely no attention to political ads by either candidate, as they are all filled with half-truths and misrepresentations. The candidates’ teams dig through decades worth of statements and votes and pull out anything they can stretch or bend to make the other look bad. Politicians vote for or against bills all of the time, and often vote differently than you might expect based on riders, funding mechanisms, sunset provisions and all sorts of things. I think it’s much better to seek out “candidate positions” websites.

Dave, do you remember Michael Dukakis and the Willie Horton ad? Dukakis tried to explain what really happened and it just got worse for him.

Defending yourself sounds – well – defensive. Much better to counterattack.

It all boils down to the fact that any legislator is going to vote for something that can be called a tax increase. If the bill increases funding to schools to make them ADA compliant, but raises the money by a one-cent increase in the cigarette tax, opponents count it as a tax increase.

We are never going to get good government in the US until we disabuse ourselves of the notion that tax increases are always bad and tax cuts are always good.

Or John Kerry’s “I was for it before I was against it.”

Also, if the candidates were only allowed to raise money to a very restricted level it might stop the infantile stupidity expressed in the OPs example.

Consider the following:

Politician 1 submits a bill that includes a 100% spending increase for program “X”. Politician 2 votes for a compromise bill that gives program “X” an increase of 75%.

In the real world, both bills include significantly more money for program “X”. In the world of government, Politician “B” is now, depending on which side is speaking, berated/congratulated for slashing spending. The mind truly boggles.

I have a very simple algorithm. Republicans always lie. No, Democrats don’t always tell the truth, but they rarely make it up out of whole cloth. I used to think that John Kelly was an exception, but he has refuted that now. GHW Bush? Remember the Willie Horton ads? W?, the fake yellowcake claims, followed by outing Valorie Plame.