Martin Schram - Voters share blame for negative campaigns

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America's Great Electoral Marathon of 2012 ended in the wee hours of Wednesday with a quiet emotion and dignity that belied what had been a godawful year.

There was the elation of President Barack Obama, celebrating his rather amazing re-election in a shower of confetti. There was the graciousness of Mitt Romney in defeat.

And there were the cheers of the people in these very different election finales of the world's most famous democracy. It almost made us forget what the candidates and those of us who cover them had really been hearing, all year, from America's venerated vox populi -- the voice of the people:

"Please lie to me!" the people kept telling the candidates. So, of course, the politicians did just that, once they figured out they'd pay no penalty for their campaign lies, distortions and deception.

After all, the politicians were just giving the people what too many among us really want to hear about the opposition politicians they love to hate.

One reason so many voters have gotten negative is that they prefer to get what they still call "news" from blogs, Tweets and cable news channels that pander to partisans to get top ratings.

These new media whip their audiences' frustrations into a froth. In this campaign, a lot of it seemed one-sided, as many on the right were quick to hate the incumbent president. They gleefully recirculated emailed trash and lies about Barack Obama as if they were newfound treasure.

No wonder Campaign 2012 just set a new record for campaign-ad negativity. According to a Wesleyan Media Project study, 86 percent of Obama's ads and 79 percent of Romney's ads were negative. That's a big increase from 2008, when Obama and John McCain spent a combined 69 percent of their ad budgets on negative ads; and 2004, when George W. Bush and John Kerry spent a combined 58 percent on negative ads.

Of course, pols and strategists found it expedient to enhance their negativity with dollops of dishonesty. And Campaign 2012 devolved: Distortion was the norm. Deception became an art form. Lies abounded. Accuracy was as rare as a found artifact.

Now we must learn multiple lessons from the failures of all the 2012 players: the politicians, the journalists and the people who too often encouraged -- even implored -- candidates to do things we once deplored.

We remember too many Campaign 2012 lowlights, especially the Republican demonization of "Obamacare." And the way conservative schemers successfully conned easily manipulated Tea Party folks by denouncing as "liberal" or "socialist" the mandate that everyone must buy health insurance.

The political media glossed over the truth: That health care mandate was incubated in the conservative Heritage Foundation think tank in the Clinton years, as a proud Republican alternative to liberals clamoring for a single-payer government program. Conservative Republicans embraced it. Romney used it in his Massachusetts health plan; it was the only way he could assure no one would be rejected for insurance because of a pre-existing condition.

Here it got downright Shakespearean: Obama initially opposed the mandate, then reluctantly accepted it to lure Republican support. But like a precision drill team, congressional Republicans unanimously about-faced and attacked Obama's mandate as a liberal evil. Their audiences cheered every attack. They just loved to hate anything tied to Obama.

Of course, Obama's Democratic ad makers did their own distorting. They cherry-picked hundreds of transactions by Romney's Bain Capital private equity company, magnifying outcomes that closed plants and cut jobs and ignoring success stories including Staples, The Sports Authority and Burger King.

Eventually, Romney's aspirations were stung by his own last-minute distortions. Example: His ad makers got him into trouble with Ohio auto industry workers by suggesting Jeep was transferring jobs to China. Chrysler and General Motors quickly denounced the deceitful ad. And that may have led to Romney's loss of that crucial swing state and maybe others.

It is easy, now, to read all this and denounce those who are way too eager to hate and pounce. We like to say we aren't like that. But wait: How often did you gleefully pass along an emailed political smear?

And have you ever demanded that your favorite newspaper or television program disclose on Page 1 or in prime time the deceitful distortions that fact-checkers have discovered?

Candidates will never stop lying, distorting or deceiving until we all do our jobs --by making sure they pay a political penalty every time they try to con their way to victory.

(Martin Schram writes political analysis for Scripps Howard News Service.)

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