On Friday, the campaign of Wendy Davis, the Democratic nominee for governor in Texas, released an ad that was powerful enough to not only get condemned by liberals and conservatives alike, but to convince some journalists to abandon their stance of objectivity. "Wendy Davis is running one of the nastiest campaign ads you will ever see," read a headline in the Washington Post. "Outrage spreads" over the ad, said the Los Angeles Times.
What has everyone so angry is that the ad refers to the fact that Davis' opponent, Texas Attorney General Greg Abbott, uses a wheelchair, with a picture of an empty one. I'm going to argue that Davis' ad may be less problematic than many people are making it out to be. But it does tell us a good deal about how these kinds of attacks should be judged. Let's start by taking a look:
Here's the text:
"A tree fell on Greg Abbott. He sued and got millions. Since then, he's spent his career working against other victims. Abbott argued a woman whose leg was amputated was not disabled because she had an artificial limb. He ruled against a rape victim who sued a corporation for failing to do a background check on a sexual predator. He sided with a hospital that failed to stop a dangerous surgeon who paralyzed patients. Greg Abbott: he's not for you."
If we say that this ad is out of line, we should make sure we understand exactly why. Abbott's record on disability issues is absolutely legitimate, since it has been part of his work as attorney general. This is an issue on which he has received criticism before, including on the specific question of whether people who are disabled should be able to sue for compensation. His own history would seem relevant to that issue. A month ago, Abbott released an ad of his own meant to show him as an inspiring figure whose struggle to deal with the limitations of his paralysis will make him a better governor.
So I'd argue that, if handled carefully enough, Davis's ad could have been perfectly fine even if it made reference to Abbott's disability. I have a problem with the sentence, "He sued and got millions," which implies that Abbott made out like a bandit on his accident. If the ad had said something like, "He sued and got the compensation he deserved," it would have been a lot clearer that Davis was arguing not that Abbott shouldn't have been compensated, but that other victims should be as well.
The Davis campaign essentially argues (though not in these terms, to be sure) that they aren't trying to make voters contemptuous of Abbott for his disability, they're trying to make voters contemptuous of him for being a particularly cold-hearted brand of hypocrite. But those kinds of distinctions are going to be lost when a simple formula is applied: Attack ad + mention of opponent's disability = NOT COOL.
Coverage of this kind of thing takes as its starting point that "personal" attacks are more problematic than "issue" attacks. Which can be true, but isn't necessarily true. Campaigns are full of issue-based attacks that are misleading, demagogic, irrelevant to governing, and/or play on the worst instincts of voters. In 2008, an Obama ad mocked John McCain for being so old and out of touch that he didn't know how to send an email—and linked it to his economic policies. A McCain ad criticized Obama for being "the biggest celebrity in the world," with inexplicable shots of Brittney Spears and Paris Hilton, young white women whose fame was tied up in their sexuality—and linked that to his ideas about taxes.
And even when policy is more than just a fig leaf, it doesn't mean the attack is more substantive or defensible. When George H.W. Bush decided to make Willie Horton the centerpiece of his 1988 campaign, he was talking about an "issue." But he was also hoping that the ugliest racist fears could be used to his electoral advantage (and he was right). "By the time we're finished," said Bush strategist Lee Atwater at the time, "they're going to wonder whether Willie Horton is Dukakis's running mate."
That's just one particularly memorable case, but the fact is that every campaign features lots of attacks that are supposedly about issues but, in fact, are all about creating a particular set of feelings about candidates. Every issue attack is a character attack in disguise, a way of fusing the personal and the political into one seething knot of dislike and disgust that's supposed to rise up like heartburn every time you look at that candidate. He's not one of us, he doesn't care about us, he can't be trusted, he's a liar and a wimp and a fool—"issues" are used to express all these things.
So if Wendy Davis' ad was out of line, it was only because of some easily changed details that would have made it much more palatable. People's access to the courts is a serious public policy issue, nowhere more so than in Texas, where Republicans have been particularly aggressive in shutting the courthouse doors to those without power. And Greg Abbott, personal tragedy or not, has most assuredly been on the wrong side of that issue.
That isn't to say that personal attacks can't be wrong just for being personal. If a candidate tries to get you to vote against his opponent because the latter worships at the wrong church or has ugly kids, it isn't appropriate no matter how many times the attacker repeats, "I'm not questioning his character, I'm questioning his judgment." But in the course of a campaign, we hear about a lot of things that have absolutely nothing to do with what the one who wins will actually do in office. All of those things should get observers just as disgusted as this ad did, whether you call them personal or not.