During the Reagan years a new campaign strategy, authored by Lee Atwater made its debut on the political stage. The strategy was simple: politics is war; winning is all that matters, therefore dirty tricks, personal insults and character assassination are now acceptable campaign tactics. Mind you, these tactics have always been a part of American politics but always in the shadows - the tricksters were never invited to the party after the election.. This was the first time that they were embraced openly and widely by a major political party at the presidential level and were stars of the party.
Atwater cloned any number of people willing to use his tactics: Karl Rove, Newt Gingrich and Tom DeLay being the most prominent. The tactic has proven successful - witness Dukakis' defeat by Reagan [the Willie Horton ads]; the G.H.W Bush/John McCain GOP nomination battle [rumor of McCain having a black illegitimate child]; and most recently, the savaging of John Kerry's war record by the Swift Boat veterans group in 2004. For roughly twenty-five years it has dominated the political scene.
These victories and many more indicated that if you were willing to be vicious, insulting, and demeaning enough there was no end to the success you could enjoy. In fact, these were the tactics used to, first, purge the GOP of "squishy" Congressmen not willing to use the tactic; secondly; to take over the Congress in 1993; and, thirdly, win G.W. Bush's selection [Florida voting scandal and Supreme Court invervention] to be the President in 2000, and his questionable [Ohio voting irregularities] election in 2004.
If the election of 2006 is an indicator of anything, it is that the American people are no longer being deceived by these tactics and are holding candidates to a higher standard than who can degrade the opposition the most. Democratic and independent candidates are no longer intimidated by them.
Kerry's defeat underlined the fact that the only effective response to the politics of personal destruction is a vigorous and overwhelming retaliation. That lesson seems to have finally been learned by the Democratic National Committee and it was reflected in the Democratic Party's 2006 victories and G.W. Bush's plummeting poll numbers.
This will be good for both parties. The Democrats can come out of their foxholes and be equal partners in a fairer policy debate. The tough issues on national policy can be tackled with all options on the table, not just those one party says is kosher.
But it will have the greatest effect on the Republican Party, because the unintended consequences of attack politics has been the creation of a whole generation of young GOP operatives who are intellectually lazy: after all, why do you need to know the issues when you can win by destroying the credibility of the opposition?
And there will be sectors of the political landscape that will want to return to the good old days of slash and burn, distort and dissemble politics, so the battle is not totally won. But these people will over time fade more and more into the shadows from which they came.
The other word of caution, is the willingness of some editoral writers, pundits and talking heads to blame the victims for this season of vulgarity. It is considered to be "balance journalism" to not blame just the perpetrator of the slander but blame the victim as well, when they try to defend themselves. "Shame on those victims! Why don't they just shut up and let their integrity be savaged? Shut up and go peacefully to your political death!" it seems they are saying. It is the equivalent to be discomforted by rape so you condemn the victim's screaming for help as a disturbance of the peace! Surely journalism can do better than this.
That notwithstanding, after twenty-five years of political victories on the cheap, the GOP is once again going to have to earn its credibly, because the electorate is no longer equating a candidate's willingness to throw mud with being able to walk on water.