Stuck in the Mud

After constant gridlock since Barack Obama's election, it seems that our current political climate is more hostile than ever. Insults and challenges will only increase as the 2012 campaign battle grows fiercer. Today's attacks certainly seem to be unprecedented in terms of twisted creativity, frequency, and downright maliciousness, but it turns out that the phenomenon isn't all that new.

In her new book, Slinging Mud: Rude Nicknames, Scurrilous Slogans and Insulting Slang from Two Centuries of American Politics, Rosemarie Ostler provides a history of political smears from the beginning of the 19th century through the 2008 election. The American Prospect talked with Ostler about how the mudslinging tradition is as American as apple pie.

What's the best instance of mudslinging?

My own favorite would be the 1928 presidential campaign between Herbert Hoover and Al Smith. Al Smith was attacked from so many perspectives -- some that I think would be beyond the pale these days. He was a Catholic, and Protestant ministers told their congregations they'd go to hell if they voted for him. There were a lot of crazy things being published in newspapers, like that the Pope would move here if Smith were elected. He was also ridiculed because he was a working-class person from New York, with a heavy New York accent, and he was an Irish American. That campaign was even nastier than you might see here today. Today, it would be a little trickier to make fun of someone for being Irish American.

How would you compare attacks on Obama's citizenship, for example, to campaign attacks in the past?

This notion of people being un-American is not completely a new one. When Thomas Jefferson ran for president, he was attacked for being a Franco-maniac. People said he was too friendly to the French, who just had a revolution, and suggested that if Jefferson became president, he would start a French-style revolution.

If it's so ingrained, how do you account for this perceived rise in political smearing?

One thing that makes people feel like it's worse than it used to be is the amount of saturated coverage we have now. When Jefferson was running, people would pass out pamphlets, but now we've got 24-hour news bombardment. We've got television, and we've got the Internet, so when anyone says something, it's immediately tweeted or posted on YouTube -- things that weren't available 200 years ago. I think people feel overwhelmed by the pounding of it all.

Do negative campaigns backfire? Or is it possible to take a negative attack and turn it positive?

Some of the Tea Party candidates have done that by taking a very hard stance and being uncompromising. FDR was really good about spinning criticisms of him and his so-called leftist views by saying, "I'm glad these people hate me -- it's a good thing."

To what extent do you think mudslinging can swing an election one way or another?

A really well-orchestrated mudslinging campaign is pretty powerful, and that's why people keep doing it. One thing that's more powerful than mudslinging, though, is the state of the economy. That can actually counteract mud. If you're the incumbent, a good economy can protect you from mud whereas slinging mud at your opponent when the economy's bad might not help you.

Are there times when it crossed the line?

There are two kinds of negative attacks: facts that are given a negative spin and stories that are simply not true. Examples of the latter would be the story the Democrats put out in 1876 that Rutherford Hayes once got drunk and shot his mother in the arm, or the "dirty tricks" campaign against Edmund Muskie in 1972 that included letters sent out on false Muskie stationery.

What's generally considered acceptable has shifted a little bit over time. For example, in 1828 Andrew Jackson's wife was viciously smeared as adulterous because she had an irregular divorce that had to be done over. It was just a paperwork mistake, but she was really viciously attacked by Jackson's opponents. In general, I think voters tend to take negative campaigning for granted. At least, I can't think of an instance when someone lost an election because he or she went too negative.

Your book took us through 2008. What can we expect looking ahead to 2012?

It's looking so far like it's going to be kind of nasty. It's a little hard to compare what's happening right now with things that happened a while ago. But people seem to be pretty much engaged in nonstop political rhetoric now, and there doesn't seem to be a break between elections.