Eliot Cutler, the Independent candidate for governor in Maine, graciously folded his tent today in Portland after an election that was too close to call finally broke toward Republican candidate Paul LePage. In conceding the race after a 16-month campaign fell just short, Cutler left a lot of folks in Maine wondering what might have been with a classy note of thanks to supporters via email asking his supporters to get behind LePage and help him govern “as he sets out on a difficult journey.”
But what sets Cutler’s campaign apart from the vast majority of campaigns that roiled this nation on Tuesday was not what he did at the end, but what he refused to do during the heat of the battle: Negative campaigning.
“I am proud of the fact that we came from literally zero to just a few thousand votes short of winning in a mere 16 months. And I am prouder still that we stuck a dagger in the heart of negative campaigning in the State of Maine, that we never ran a single negative attack ad nor made a single personal attack, that we withstood an onslaught of lies, slander and deception directed against us and that we emerge from this race with our heads held high and our integrity intact.”
Where once the vitriolic and highly personal attack-dog campaigns stood out because they were the exception, they are now the rule in American politics. One campaign that got national attention because it was so over the top of ridiculous was a candidate for mayor in the city of Winnipeg, who ran an ad showing the incumbent mayor in grainy footage apparently “kicking a child in the face.” Turns out the mayor was playing soccer and inadvertently kicked the ball as a child’s face came into his view on the playing field.
One theory behind these campaigns is that if you can trash your opponent early and often they will never recover no matter how qualified they may be for office. Just repeat the attack or the lie over and over and over again and pretty soon someone who was once a rising star is left on the trash heap of politics and will be lucky to get elected dog catcher.
Another theory used to rationalize these campaigns is that they are just campaigns and once the battle is over, adversaries shake hands and the victor will somehow become civilized again and govern with moral authority.
The reality, of course, is that negative campaigns don’t end at the ballot box but live on in perpetuity as grudges and grievances that will infect governance itself. The victorious candidates – Republicans and Democrats – who head back to Washington D.C. in January into a divided Congress will have blood-red eyes looking to punish those who participated in the assaults on their campaigns.
The GOP that will take over the House in January will delight in moving their Democratic colleagues out of chairmanships and plum committee assignments and then begin their assault on the Democratic president who stands for election just two years from now. And the Democrats who survived the bloodshed on Tuesday will secretly root for the GOP’s failure in their new leadership roles – all the better to whip them with two years from now as they attempt to overturn the Democratic losses and regain those perks and chairmanships back.
And so it goes.
To find someone more optimistic about our future, we travelled to Kansas this morning where there is a project underway called Elect Mediators to Public Office (EMPO) which encourages candidates for political office – and officeholders – to work through their political and philosophical differences with the practiced art of mediation.
According to their website, the principle is pretty straightforward and hard to argue against:
“Like most citizens, we are concerned about excessive partisanship and polarization in politics and government. The EMPO Project was established to support the election of mediators and others who publicly advocate interest-based dispute resolution on their campaign websites. We believe that having more mediators in public office, who possess knowledge and skills for non-adversarial resolution of their differences will result in better political processes and better government.”
Of course the real-world equivalent is hoping that their opponent goes for this mediation stuff because modern-day politics isn’t about who’s right or who would make the best elected official.
In the end, the story is always the same after Election Day. We don’t necessarily get who we want but more who we deserved for allowing the bottom feeders to survive in politics.
Eliot Cutler didn’t prevail in Maine, but he and his supporters should feel pride today that they ran a hard, but civilized campaign and then stood up to support the victor.