Ever since the 1988 presidential campaign, when the Republicans successfully slimed Michael Dukakis as a wuss who polluted Boston Harbor and allowed black rapists to roam free, Democrats have been trying to figure out how best to fight back.
Should they turn the other cheek and seek to beat the GOP by articulating superior arguments grounded in substance – or should they get down in the mud, where lies and half-truths flourish, and seek to beat the GOP at its own game?
Alan Grayson, a congressional freshman and a frequent cable news show flamer, has clearly chosen the latter approach. Many liberals love it when he trash-talks Republicans. For instance, here’s how he described Dick Cheney last year on MSNBC’s Hardball: “I have trouble listening to what he says sometimes, because of the blood that drips from his teeth while he’s talking….By the way, when he was done speaking, did he just then turn into a bat and fly away?” (Host Chris Matthews’ response: “Oh, God, we’ve got to keep it level here.”)
The problem, however, is that the central-Florida Democrat, currently locked in a tight re-election race in a swing district, has now produced what is arguably the most blatantly distorted TV ad of the autumn election season. Grayson may be a hero in some liberal quarters, but his willful flight from factual reality is decidedly unheroic.
In other words, Democrats who typically assail Fox News for its frequent distortions, and Democrats who well remember how a quadriplegic war hero, Senator Max Cleland, was slimed in ’02 Republican TV ads as soft on Osama bin Laden, might be wise to ask themselves why they should excuse the same kind of behavior in their own ranks.
Maybe you’ve already heard about Grayson’s “Taliban Dan” ad. If not, suffice it to say that you don’t have to be a fan of right-wing Republican candidate Dan Webster in order to conclude that he has been egregiously slimed.
Here’s the short version: Grayson put up a TV ad claiming that his opponent is Talibanesque about women and marriage. The ad shows a video clip of Webster saying, “Wives, submit yourself to your own husband.” Seconds later, Webster is saying, “You should submit to me, that’s in the Bible.” And twice more, the ad has Webster saying, “Submit to me.”
Those video clips were taken from a talk that Webster delivered last year to a religious organization. And it turns out that what he actually said was precisely the opposite of what the Grayson ad depicted him as saying.
Webster contended in his talk that couples should look to the Bible for advice on how best to conduct their marriage. For instance, he said, “I have verses for my wife. Don’t pick the ones that say, ‘she should submit to me.’ That’s in the Bible, but pick the ones you’re supposed to do. So instead, that you’d love your wife, even as Christ loved the church and gave himself for it…as opposed to ‘wives submit yourself to your own husband.’ She can pray that if she wants to, but don’t you pray it.”
“Don’t pick the ones that say, ‘she should submit to me.'” There you have it. The whole thrust of his advice was that a good marriage should not hinge on wifely submission. Grayson’s ad team plucked a few words and twisted their meaning, with the intent to sow irrational fear among female voters.
Some of the claims that drift across the bottom of the screen are almost as bad. While the Republican candidate is depicted intoning “submit to me,” the ad says that “Dan Webster wants to make divorce illegal.” The implication is that Webster currently wants to ban divorce for all Floridians. Grayson’s evidence for such a claim? A Florida House bill that Webster submitted, as a state legislator…20 years ago.
And the bill itself did not propose to make divorce illegal; rather, it sought to offer a new option for religiously devout couples, a “covenant marriage,” under which divorces could be granted only for adultery. The key word was option. And the bill never came up for a vote anyway. And congressmen in Washington have no influence over state marriage laws anyway.
Christopher Sprinkle, a liberal filmmaker, sought on Sunday to defend Grayson’s tactics (in part because he’s planning to do a documentary about Grayson). Writing on The Huffington Post, he acknowledged: “I know Republicans have been using these tactics for ages; we only have to go back a few weeks to remember what Andrew Breitbart did to Shirley Sherrod.”
Nevertheless, Sprinkle insisted, “the problem is not with Grayson, but rather the left. For too long, we – myself included – have been too soft when it comes to politics. We don’t even have the backbone to push through Congress the issues we, as liberals, are most passionate about. This, while we control the White House, the U.S. House, and the U.S. Senate. We can’t do it precisely because we’re too afraid to ruffle some feathers. Alan Grayson likes ruffling feathers.”
So, thanks to Grayson’s manifest inventiveness, we now have a new riff on an old political conundrum: Is it necessary to sell one’s soul, to behave in the most Machiavellian fashion, in order to win? And, if so, what does that say about the (ill) health of our civic sphere?