If you ask any candidate how they plan to win, they'll respond: "I'm just going to talk about the issues and how we can make Washington work for us instead of the special interests. This election is about the future of our state and our country, and I firmly believe that when voters hear my vision for the future, we'll be successful." Here's what they don't say: "Well, eventually my opponent or his campaign will say or do something dumb, at which point I'll pretend I'm super-mad about it and we'll get a whole bunch of press coverage of him trying to defend it, and that's how I'll win."
The latter more closely resembles how campaigns actually proceed, shuffling from one inane made-up controversy to the next. And the last couple of days have given us two of the dumbest in recent memory. In Kentucky, Alison Lundergan Grimes, the Democratic candidate for U.S. Senate, is on the defensive after her campaign sent out to reporters a preview version of a newspaper ad it was planning to run, featuring a photo that would make any Wildcat's blood run cold. The offense? The ad, which criticized President Barack Obama's proposed new carbon regulations, showed a stock photo of a coal miner holding a lump of the precious rock toward the camera, a look of proud defiance on his grimy face. And it turns out that the model in the picture was—brace yourself—European. If the people of Kentucky can't trust Alison Lundergan Grimes to use American stock photos in newspaper ads, how that they trust her to make our laws?
Here's a line from the Politico story about the stock photo (what, you thought Politico wouldn't do at least a story or two about it?): "The stock photograph could undermine Grimes's messaging as Republicans raise doubts about the authenticity of her pro-coal position." I hope for the sake of his soul that the reporter read what he had written, then closed his eyes and said: "Forgive me, America."
Now let's journey a bit north and west to Iowa, where Republican U.S. Senate nominee Joni Ernst is outraged, outraged, outraged about a new ad from her opponent Bruce Braley. Playing off Ernst's previous ad about castrating hogs and making pigs in Washington squeal, Braley's ad features a tiny chick peeping, the point being that when Ernst had the chance to take on wasteful spending as a state senator, she was as docile and unthreatening as a wee chick. But that's not how the Ernst campaign saw it. They soon put out a statement saying Braley "degrades and insults Iowa women by comparing Joni Ernst to a 'chick.'"
This, ladies and gentlemen, is how the members of the World's Greatest Deliberative Body are chosen.
There are a couple of explanations for why this stuff persists. One would be that it works. Ginning up faux outrage about your opponent over crap like stock photos and ambiguous animal metaphors might actually turn voters to your side. But there's little evidence that's true. Even if from time to time there's a Todd Akin who actually reveals something shocking about himself when he opens his fool mouth, for every case like that there are a hundred where everyone's just pretending to be appalled and no one's mind gets changed.
But the better explanation would be that it gives both campaigns and reporters something to talk about. Campaigns can get boring at times, particularly when it's a ways until election day and not much has happened for a while. Even a fake controversy is better than nothing. And the campaign staffers who work so hard to foist the latest outrage turd on the public can at least tell themselves they're doing their jobs.
But whatever it is, one thing we know for sure is that it will never, ever stop. Democrats do it, Republicans do it, candidates of honor do it and the vilest knaves do it. It's completely irrelevant, and it's what today's campaigns are made of.
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