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Negative ads a consequence of failed 'reforms'

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By Rob Witwer

With primary season ending and the general election ramping up, we’re once again being inundated with political advertisements on television and radio. These ads have a predictable style and rhythm, depending on their source and whether they are for or against a candidate.

The most common type is the positive ad from the candidate — well-lit, focused and upbeat. Mountains are often visible in the background. There may be some general discussion about issues, but it’s usually vague.

While a 30-second spot isn’t conducive to specifics, you can actually learn quite a bit about a person by what he or she chooses to emphasize.

Keep in mind that political advertisements are the culmination of months (or years) of campaigning, and reflect the input of a cadre of experienced advisers. Although these advisers are often driven by polling and pressure-tested messages, for the most part positive ads reflect the character and interests of the candidate.

Thirty seconds isn’t nearly long enough to get to know somebody, but it’s the distilled essence of how that candidate chooses to present him or herself. That’s valuable.

Of far less value are negative ads. Before getting to their message, they announce themselves with low light, flat colors, blurry images and minor keys. They’re more an appeal to emotion as to reason, and they’re often ugly.

Negative ads have always been a part of campaigns, but recent state and federal campaign finance “reforms” have created a veritable industry of independent political groups in the past two election cycles.

Because of the byzantine tax and campaign finance rules that govern them, they’re never direct in their message (“call fill-in-the-blank and ask him ee”) or clear about their source (“paid for by Citizens for Good Things”). Because they aren’t tied to a candidate, these groups can be more aggressive and looser with facts. A candidate who did the same thing could expect to be punished at the ballot box.

Make no mistake about it: These ads are a direct consequence of campaign finance “reforms” passed a half decade ago both at the state and federal level. While the promise of such measures was to “get big money out of politics” and clean up political campaigns, political money has simply been redirected to other sources.

The reason is simple. By capping what candidates can raise and spend, the new rules force money into outside groups. The same amount of money (if not more) is ultimately spent on campaigns, but a higher percentage is controlled by special interests.

This is what happens when government tries to regulate free speech. People are going to find a way to say what’s on their mind, even if they have to jump through legal hoops to do it. Far better to allow more speech, disclose the sources of contributions, allow candidates to speak for themselves — and then let voters be the judge. It’s better by the First Amendment, and it provides better information to citizens.

Rob Witwer, who grew up in Evergreen and currently lives in Genesee, is the outgoing state representative for House District 25.