Yesterday afternoon's debate between Phil Angelides and Steve Westly on Univision's Voz y Voto (scheduled to air Saturday) "marked a sharp negative turn in the race", according to the Los Angeles Times. The rest of the media agrees– for example, the opening sentence of the San Francisco Chronicle's story on the debate declares: "The once-polite campaign for governor turned harsh Wednesday". But there are two problems with this turning-point-in-the-campaign trope that's echoing throughout the media.
The first problem is that the only thing new about the negativity is that it's now on display for the general public. As John Meyers of KQED's The California Report notes on his blog, "For weeks, the campaigns of Phil Angelides and Steve Westly have fired off e-mails to political reporters slamming each other on everything from their environmental records to the past business dealings of each man." But instead of learning about this in the various accounts of the debate, we are instead treated to reporters claiming the candidates slamming each other is a surprising turn of events.
The second problem is what gets characterized as harshly negative. The Times sums up the debate's negativity thusly:
In the debate, Angelides portrayed Westly as a wobbler who often acts on political expediency, not principle. Over and over, he chided Westly for forging close ties with Republican incumbent Arnold Schwarzenegger when the governor was popular. "When young students of immigrant background were being turned away from college by Gov. Schwarzenegger, I stood up," Angelides said. "Mr. Westly stood by."
Westly said he had, in fact, "stood up to Arnold Schwarzenegger" when the governor tried to withhold money from colleges and universities. He also went on the attack, describing Angelides as too quick to support higher taxes, a topic that offered one of the debate's sharpest contrasts.
And that's as tough as the language got. (Presumably, the debate would have been more interesting if the Times had already published its story revealing Westly had personally intervened with CalPERS to get the state pension system to invest in a venture capital fund CalPERS had already considered and rejected, after which Westly received campaign contributions from partners in the lucky fund.) According to the big media outlets, that's some harsh stuff. I disagree.
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You want harsh? Try Australian politics. My favorite example of recent years is Mark Latham's 2003 description of Prime Minister John Howard and his followers: "a conga line of suckholes" . Latham, then the leader of the opposition, was referring to the Howard administration's constant toadying to wishes of President Bush. Latham had already publicly described the prime minister as Bush's "arselicker". Now that's harsh.
Of course, American politicians, like Catholic schoolgirls, are supposed pure in thought and deed, and would therefore never use bad language. But truly harsh political rhetoric doesn't require a single questionable word. Consider this brilliant example published in the Memphis Press-Scimitar on July 21, 1948. Longtime Tennessee political boss E.H. Crump wanted voters to know exactly what he thought of his opponent, Gordon Browning:
I have said before, and I repeat it now, that in the art galleries of Paris there are twenty-seven pictures of Judas Iscariot– none look alike but all resemble Gordon Browning; that neither his head, heart, nor hand can be trusted; that he would milk his neighbor's cow through a crack in the fence; that, of the two hundred and six bones in his body there isn't one that is genuine; that his heart has beaten over two billion times without a single sincere beat.
I doubt that either Angelides or Westly will ever rise to the occasion as Crump did, and that's a shame. Campaign rhetoric is invariably devoid of real content, there's no reason it has to be dull as well.