When slop passes for political ads

Who would have thought that two disparate instances of imprudence back in 2003, one in wartime Iraq, one in party-time Miami Beach, would come to have such relevance in the Florida election of 2012?

Yet, the poor folks trapped in Florida’s 18th Congressional District have been subjected to a barrage of attacks ads suggesting that the events of 2003 tell all one really needs to know about their candidates.

Back in 2003, U.S. Rep. Allen West, then a colonel in the U.S. Army, was charged, though never actually court marshaled, for firing a gun near an Iraqi prisoner’s head. The Army didn’t think much of his interrogation technique, fining him $5,000 and forcing him to retire. Perhaps the incident foretold something about West’s brash character as a politician, but after two years in office, his actual congressional record informs voters exactly how this Tea Party firebrand would perform as their U.S. representative.

In 2003, when challenger Patrick Murphy was 19, he was rousted for disorderly intoxication, a fake ID and mouthing off to a cop outside a Miami Beach night club. The charges were later dropped. This incident too has become the stuff of an attack campaign, as if someone’s behavior as a 19-year-old loose on South Beach might be a useful barometer of his political acumen nine years later.

Meanwhile, a SuperPac has gone after West with a nasty cartoon ad that depicts him with an outsized head knocking old ladies around a boxing ring. Another SuperPac goes after Murphy as one of the generic Democrats who support “wasteful spending like exotic ant research,” as tiny ants scurry across the TV screen. Apparently, the ad refers to a science grant derived from an emergency bipartisan bill passed without safeguards against the money going to the forbidden reaches of entomology.

Not that the ear-biting tactics in the West-Murphy campaign are much worse than others in this nastiest year ever in modern American politics. In Florida, decorum disappeared by the end of January, thanks to the Republican presidential primary. The Kantar Media Campaign Media Analysis Group studied the presidential primary ads, mostly Mitt Romney and Newt Gingrich pounding one another, and reported that 92 percent were of the attack kind. Ads celebrating the achievements of either candidate were not much in evidence. It’s not that nice guys don’t win elections. They don’t even try.

The summer and fall campaigning has been no more uplifting. Anyone relying on television ads to decide the presidential election — apparently no small percentage of the electorate — must decide between two dogs, both bent on tossing Medicare recipients out of their hospital beds and workers out of their jobs. With the race so close, the apparent strategy shared by both sides isn’t so much to convince voters to vote for their candidate, but to discourage supporters of the other guy from voting at all. In 2012, cynicism masquerades as political strategy.

For the U.S. Senate, we can choose Connie Mack, “the Charlie Sheen of Florida politics” (an attack line the Democrats reprised from the attack ads from Mack’s opponent in the Republican primary), a “promoter for Hooters with a history of barroom brawls, altercations, and road rage.” (I’m not sure my rowdier friends would understand allusions to Hooters and barroom brawls as a negative attack.)

Or there’s incumbent Bill Nelson, who, in the eyes of the TV-land electorate, has been reduced to a faux cattle rancher using a few grazing cows on his family’s land to exploit an agricultural loophole. (You know how those Republicans hate tax breaks.)

Neither ad campaign imparts information citizens might find useful. But that’s hardly the goal. SuperPacs, let loose by the Supreme Court’s infamous Citizens United decision, are going berserk in this record $3 billion year for federal campaigns. Almost all of it is negative. Almost all of it is misleading. “Free political speech” amounts to a depressing slop of twisted facts, misleading allusions, out-of-context quotes and outright lies. The pants of this great nation have become a mendacious inferno.

Not that local elections have shown any allegiance to civil discourse. An attack ad financed by the Miami-Dade Police Benevolent Association included a photograph of state Rep. Carlos Lopez-Cantera, a candidate at the time for Miami-Dade property appraiser, with his arm extended in a “thumbs down” gesture. Except the photo in the ad had been cropped at the wrist to make it appear as if his gesture was, instead, a Hitler salute.

Then there was the SuperPac attack back in the Republican primary against State Rep. Jeff Brandes for the sin of supporting legislation that would allow testing of driverless, robotic automobiles in Florida. The ad shows a driverless Toyota Prius going past a terrified elderly woman, with some granny’s voice wondering why Brandes would push such a dangerous concept onto the defenseless elders of Florida.

Next, we’ll have ads warning that robots are running away with grandma’s Medicare. Or that certain nefarious candidates are conspiring to allow imported robots the right to vote. Or: “All you really need to know about my opponent” was that he was busted after brawling with drunken robots in a Hooters. That was back in the all-important year of 2003.