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The Most Important Election Of Them All

     

2012-11-06 An Opinion Piece

by Ken Larsen

Every four years, the people and the punditry of this land piously
assert that that particular presidential polling is the big one, the ultimate
decider of our nation’s fate, the true history-maker, the most important
election of our time. An irony, to be sure, as typically each election fades in
our consciousness shortly after, replaced entirely in significance by the
upcoming one, the one that will really change and affect our lives forever.
As for myself, I have watched many presidential elections come and go;
some were painful, some uplifting, some more interesting than others. But
now we are on the cusp of yet another, and the nation is energized. Many
shout out that this is it—the big one, the Moment of Truth, the ultimate
determinant of our country’s moral character. This, they cry, is without a
doubt the most important election of our time. To which I reply: could be.
Who knows? But if you want my honest opinion, I would have to say that I
am inclined to disagree. You see, we had a truly important election, once
upon a time, of the sort that absolutely affected the course of history, as well
as the psyche of this great land of ours, and it’s not what most people would
think of or likely even very well remember without an accompanying fit of
yawning.
So what was the Most Important Election of them all? Drum roll,
please. And here we go. It was—the Presidential election of 1988, Bush v.
Dukakis!!
Ok, ok, I know that’s a real letdown. The Presidency of George
Herbert Walker Bush is about as excitedly remembered as that of Milliard
Fillmore. Furthermore, as far as presidential candidates go, the true
difference and distinction between those two rather bland personalities is not
so vast—certainly nothing like the gulf we see today between our
representatives of the two diametrically opposed national parties. But for
those of you still reading, let me explain.
In the early and middle stages of that campaign, the poll data
and “experts” all gave the nod to the Governor of Massachusetts. Every
indication was that the American people had grown tired of the Reagan
Revolution, and certainly had no interest in keeping his milquetoast Vice

President in the Oval office. Dukakis, as uninspiring as he was, seemed a
smart, competent and likeable enough fellow. And he was a Democrat, at a
time when the public was growing disenchanted with failed Trickle Down
Theory and the GOP philosophy of slashing even good, important
government programs. Team Bush knew they had to act, and act quickly, if
they wanted to avoid an embarrassing pummeling at the polls. And act they
did.
Enter Lee Atwater, one of the prime movers of the Southern Strategy
under Reagan, and as aggressive and nasty a campaigner as there ever was.
Under Atwater’s management, the Bush campaign went all out negative,
trashing Dukakis’ record and reputation with a viciousness that took even
the pusillanimous Media by surprise. All of a sudden, the airwaves were full
of non-stop drivel and bile about Willie Horton and Boston Harbor and
Dukakis’ alleged mental illness. But no matter how malignant or
unwarranted the attacks, the bruised and battered liberals refused to engage
in this rush to the gutter. Dukakis, sitting on a 17-point lead by mid-summer,
chose to stay above the fray, refusing to either defend his reputation against
the slanders, nor to strike back. In other words, he respected the eternal
request of the public, both then and now, to never “go negative.” And there
it was, the great political litmus test, finally enacted before all to see: two
candidates for high office, one going positive, the other wholly and
repulsively negative. One taking the high road that the people forever claim
they want to see, the other slinking and snarling down the low road, in direct
opposition to the expressed wishes of an ever optimistic and peace-loving
American public.
Guess who won.
The basic breakdown of what happened goes like this: on a scale of 1-
10, the American people saw Dukakis as about a 7, Bush a 5. Now, that’s a
hard hurdle to overcome. But this deficit in public opinion can be altered
and affixed, even if at a price. You see, when one candidate goes wholly and
entirely negative, the people see this and quickly grow disgusted with it.
Their collective opinion of that candidate drops a point, in this case pulling
Bush down from a 5 to a 4. But the negative battering has an affect on the
other side, as well. The person constantly maligned drops even lower on the
public opinion scale, by two points, taking Dukakis down from a 7 to a 5.
And so the Bush Team, determined to, as Atwater once said, “make Willie
Horton his (Dukakis’) running mate,” were able to achieve victory by
keeping their heads a smidgeon higher in the mutual descent into the mud.
Disgusted voters, calling these the worst candidates ever, picked Bush (a 2)
over Dukakis (now a 1). And as they say, the rest is history.

So, why was this such an important election? Because, alas, this
proved for all time, to political theorists of all stripes from hack to Karl
Rove, that what the public wants and what they respond to are two totally
different things. Forget the altruists and the idealists and all those pure-
hearted fools who call out to our better natures. Negative works. If you want
to win an election, slime the other bastard. Bush and Atwater proved it to us,
for all time to come.
It did not have to be so. For months leading up to the election, our
Media played it neutral. They fell into their usual fairness trap, which
forever tricks them into mistaking “objective” reporting with “equal
outcome” reporting. Like a behind-the-plate umpire, who believes that if he
calls one pitch a ball that he has to call the next one a strike, our national
Media responded to each and every instance of negative Bush tactics as “yet
another example of how low both candidates have sunk.” Both sides taken
to task by the Media, what Anderson Cooper calls “keeping them honest,”
always looks good; never mind that journalism is supposed to be about the
truth. In this manner, Bush was never punished for his ferocious
campaigning, nor was Dukakis ever rewarded for his fundamental decency.
The final insult came the very night of the election, just hours after the polls
had closed, when a large CNN panel of election watchers virtually all agreed
that the Bush campaign, and ONLY the Bush campaign, had gone all-out
negative. Great, now you’re not afraid of being tarred as “too liberal” and
finally willing to tell the truth! Where was this panel the day before?
So, flash forward to the present. Bush-Dukakis is now ancient history,
but the fundamental lesson has been absorbed by both parties. Or has it?
Obama seems to drift back and forth, between periods of respect and
decency and a willingness to be polite to the other side (as he was for the
first year of his presidency, and during his first debate performance), and
periods of resolve, strength, and a genuine sense of moral offense at
behavior that, frankly, often warrants a reaction of moral offense. When
Obama is standing tall and fighting back against the Republicans, he looks
like a leader; when he lowers his head or allows misstatements to go
unchallenged, he looks like Dukakis.
As for Romney and the Republicans, they look like a collection of
Lee Atwaters on steroids. From their mouths, and the mouths of their
surrogates out in Tea Party-Land or Fox News, we have heard, and
constantly, that our President is a communist and a socialist (who bailed out
Wall Street and saved the banking and car industries); a terrorist and pal of
terrorists (who killed Osama Bin Laden and wrecked Al Qaida); an enemy
of Israel (who is very popular in Israel); our worst foreign policy President

ever (who has, following Bush Jr, raised the esteem of the U.S. throughout
the world); a Kenyan (who was born in Hawaii); a Muslim with a wacky
(Christian) pastor; a tax-hiker (who has lowered taxes); a job-destroyer (who
has, since Bush, created many jobs); a radical who wants to take away our
guns (who has supported the NRA more so than any other President); a
partisan (who has from the start strived vainly to deal with the wholly
obstructionist Gridl Ock Party); an intellectual elitist snob (i.e.: intelligent);
and a person who is not one of us (i.e.: black). Yet the cynical strategy is not
hurting the party now run by Karl Rove and Rush Limbaugh—far from it.
The truth of the matter is this: the Republican Party, as it is today, is
guilty of so many lies and distortions and etch-o-sketch flip-flops and
stonewallings and instances of general nastiness and petty meanness that it
is very hard, virtually impossible, for any journalistic organ to chronicle or
fully investigate, let alone report on—let alone summarize in this or any
article of under 500 pages in length. I call this the Great Blur, meaning that,
starting really under Bush Jr, the prevalence of examples of dishonesty and
arrogance and stupidity and incompetence and just bad decision making
became so all-encompassing that the Media, and the American people as
well, grew numb to it. Like being in a room where an alarm goes off each
and every time the President does something bad. You’ll notice two or three
alarms ringing, and likely strive to silence them. But when over a hundred of
them are blazing at once, you can only cover your ears and painfully try to
live with it. In other words, at some point, a person or a party can be so
awful that subsequent offenses are deemed unimportant. Karl Rove
understands this.
In Mitt Romney, we have a candidate who has demonstrated the most
extreme example ever of the presidential candidate who leans one way
(to the right) during the primaries, then to the center during the last weeks
of the general campaign. Romney has been on both sides of many, many
issues: health care, gun control, gay rights, contraceptive rights, abortion,
privatizing social security, auto bailout, cap and trade, cutting greenhouse
emissions, stem cell research, minimum wage, and on and on. He ran for
Governor of Massachusetts referring to himself proudly as a moderate, yet
during the recent Republican debates he defiantly referred to himself as the
most conservative of all the candidates. His willingness to take any position,
based upon the expediency of the moment, has been stunningly transparent,
and a real insult to the intelligence of the public.
Also blatantly obvious, and disturbing in the extreme, is the way the
Republican Party has strived to disenfranchise voters in many swing states.
In Pennsylvania, new voter ID laws may prevent one million mostly urban

(i.e.: black) citizens from voting. Colorado’s Republican Secretary of State
has been sending letters to thousands of voters in Colorado, challenging
their eligibility to vote. Governor of Florida Rick Scott is restricting early
voting and election day voting, to “amend” the error former GOP Governor
Crist made in 2008 of making voting more accessible to the public (how
dare he!?). According to a new study, voting laws in 23 states could keep
more than 10 million Hispanic U.S. citizens from registering and voting,
which would certainly benefit Romney in a close election. And according to
the Center for American Progress, “these laws hinder voting rights in a
manner not seen since the era of Jim Crow.” The possibility that Romney
might “win” the election by blocking voters in key states from voting is very
real. Yet, as was the case after the 2000 election (when our media agreed
with the GOP that “preventing a Constitutional crisis” was more important
than delving into the muck and digging up the truth—an astonishing
sentiment for journalists to take!), our National media, other than MSNBC,
seems frighteningly unconcerned.
We seem to be living in an age of abhorrent apathy, where the typical
reaction to a charge of one candidate (or one party) doing something
completely dishonest or unethical is to shrug and say, “eh, so what?” This,
as I have noted from many conversations with friends and from watching
and listening to so much commentary, I believe, is a conservative
phenomena, in that liberals tend to be disturbed by accusations of dishonesty
within their own ranks, while conservatives do not. Now, I am making, of
course, a sweeping generalization, but I believe it is valid. A frequently
observed difference between liberals and conservatives is that conservatives
play to win, whereas liberals want to show the world (and themselves) how
fair they are. Therefore, conservatives generally do win (think back again:
Bush v. Dukakis). We have today a major cable network that is daily
dedicated to telling conservative America (which is generally white,
Christian and male) that they (the white, Christian males) are actually the
victims within our society. Not the homosexuals, or Hispanics, or blacks, or
women, or the poor, no—you are the victims! And it is the liberal elites who
are unfair, dishonest, play dirty, willingly do anything to seize power and
take away from you the country you love, etc. By playing and replaying this
message ad infinitum, day in and day out, Fox News has, over the years,
bred a massive subculture within our nation that is so enraged (and with,
they feel, full moral justification) that they will tolerate any lying or
cheating or dirty politicking on their side, whatsoever—since it is, after all,
directed against an enemy that is itself without any moral scruples. In other
words, Fox viewers have accepted the old “ends justifies the means”

argument. When you get right down to it, it is almost immoral not to lie, to
distort, to cheat, to destroy the enemy. There is nothing that you can tell to
such a Fox fanatic, no matter how truthful or extreme, that will dissuade
them from supporting the Republicans, because they have internalized the
belief that the liberal Democrats are actually the guiltier, in every instance.
Viewing thousands of hours of absolute bile will do that to a person.
Now, I can understand how someone might subvert his concerns
about a candidate’s personal honesty (or that of the Party) in order to
support the candidate he feels will best suit his interests or his needs. A
drowning man will cry out to a lifeguard, even if he happens to know that
lifeguard is a lying bastard. So I do understand, sorta, how a person so
misinformed and misguided as to believe that Republican rule is best for this
country might willingly disregard the insurmountable evidence of GOP
dishonesty, and Romney’s grotesque acquiescence to whatever his audience
wants him to say that particular day. Regrettable, but yes, I do get it. What I
have a real hard time understanding is how Independents, or moderate
Republicans, are able to look past the serial flip-flops, the hiding of the tax
forms, the refusal to grant interviews or answer questions, the lack of details
on any economic plan, the selection of arch-conservative Ryan for V-P, the
snide disdain for 47% of the nation, the contempt for workers, the
aristocratic snobbery, the unwillingness to say that women deserve equal
pay for equal work; the lack of leadership that prevents Romney from ever
standing up to the radical right that is corroding his party, etc etc.
So we now have an election upon us in which one side is blatantly
willing to say anything, do anything—to lie, cheat and steal—in order to
win an election. You know, come to think of it, if the Republicans win, then
their tactics will be justified and codified for all to see, maybe for all time. If
we wake up Wednesday morning to a smiling, triumphant President-elect
Romney, then what hope have we that future candidates will show respect
for the simplest of principles such as “be consistent” and “show integrity”
and “let the voters know who you are” and “stand up to the extremists in
your party” and “be a man of some character” and “tell the truth”? Obama
and the Democrats aren’t perfect, but they are simply so much better than
the other side; if they lose, then will they in the future move even more to
the right, and towards wildly unethical campaigning, in order to be viable?
So maybe, come to think of it, this really is the big one, the crossroads, the
litmus test of our time. Maybe this really is the most important election of
them all."

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