Presidential Campaigns and Their Dodgy Rules of Engagement

Author: Robert Schmuhl ’70

“Politics ain’t beanbag.”

More than a century ago, the wisecracking Chicago saloonkeeper Mr. Dooley lampooned the perpetual sport of American democracy. Created by journalist Finley Peter Dunne, Mr. Dooley instructed patrons that the hurly-burly of political gamesmanship could never be confused with the child’s play of beanbag.

Fast forward to today and the sporting metaphor changes. Without satire or cushioning humor, politics is now hardball—with a tactically timed beanball always a possibility.

Especially during a presidential campaign season, contenders throw charges and countercharges at each other with such velocity and spin the voter is often in a quandary. What’s accurate or contrived? What’s fair or out of bounds?

Ancient philosophers and 21st-century pundits share little in common, but they’d all agree that the pursuit of power never observes a list of tablet-chiseled commandments. Indeed, one insider account of the rough-and-tumble of contemporary electioneering was aptly titled All’s Fair, with this joint memoir co-authored by a Democrat and a Republican.

Surprisingly, the last three presidents are on the record acknowledging that certain tactics executed in their names provoked ethical concern. Yet, as far as they were concerned, the ends justified the means.

Following the 1988 campaign between George H.W. Bush and Michael Dukakis, a television interviewer asked the president-elect about the barrage of truth-challenging ads aired on his behalf. “That’s history,” Bush replied, batting aside the question. “That doesn’t mean anything anymore.”

After his 1996 re-election race, Bill Clinton was confronted by White House rival Bob Dole over a series of credibility-straining spots. “You gotta do what you gotta do,” responded the victor with a mischievous smile.

Four years later, George W. Bush and John McCain were battling for the Republican presidential nomination in South Carolina, when slurs about McCain’s personal life (including the fathering of illegitimate children) started circulating. Deeply offended, the Arizona senator challenged the Texas governor and soon-to-be president. “John,” Bush offered in defense, “it’s politics.”

Each response recognizes American electoral reality. In most cases, a campaign is less a battle of ideas than a fistfight in suits, complete with the occasional sucker-punch of a dirty trick. What Abraham Lincoln considered “the better angels of our nature” invariably seem to take flight when the presidency is at stake.

The White House nominating contests this year continued the less than edifying tradition of high-pitched yet low-road rhetoric, escalating at times to realms beyond civil discourse.

In each party, but particularly with Democrats, words seemed closer to poison-tipped arrows, as racially charged statements, the veracity of one’s experience and personal insults pinned the electorate down in campaign crossfire. The voracious appetite of today’s continuous news cycle means such attacks receive intense focus.

Especially as races narrowed to a couple possible standard bearers, language sharpened and became more desperate. Such outbursts (that a candidate was a “monster,” a supporter acted like “Judas” or a campaign engaged in “McCarthyism”) flew in and out of the political echo chamber at warp speed, but they left behind a trail of blood.

Clinton and Obama
Sometimes what a candidate says can even turn into a weapon in the hands of an opponent. This spring Senator Hillary Clinton tried to burnish her foreign policy and military credentials by describing a visit to Bosnia as First Lady in 1996.

“I remember landing under sniper fire,” she recalled. “There was supposed to be some kind of a greeting ceremony at the airport, but instead we just ran with our heads down to get into the vehicles to get to our base.”

When videotape subsequently showed the reality of a peaceful arrival, her embellishment of the truth provoked several days of questioning commentary. Did the fabrication of the past point to a larger concern about trust?

Senator Barack Obama was a casualty of his own oratory in late spring, when it was revealed he told a California audience that small towns throughout mid-America suffered community-altering job losses. Characterizing the social consequences on people, he observed: “And it’s not surprising then they get bitter, they cling to guns or religion or antipathy to people who aren’t like them or anti-immigrant sentiment or anti-trade sentiment as a way to explain their frustrations.”

Accusations that the Illinois senator was elitist or out of touch with these voters exploded in the media, especially as ammunition for Senator Clinton and Republican presumptive nominee Senator John McCain. Attempts to clarify the meaning behind the words got lost in the continuing campaign scrimmage for political advantage.

For a voter, however, the reality of no-holds-barred competition co-exists with another one that’s, ultimately, of greater significance. Even though ethics might be a somewhat distant concern inside campaign war rooms, citizens watching contests unfold regularly make moral judgments about the relevance of an aspirant’s conduct.

Though endless politicking is itself a problem, the extended electoral season provides the opportunity for voters to weigh and decide what counts. How a candidate plays the political game becomes a factor in the final selection process.

Finding the facts
Today, a cornucopia of communication outlets—print, online, broadcasting, cable, satellite—delivers a boundless array of campaign-related messages. But it’s up to a citizen to take the initiative to discover what’s true or false, what’s consequential or unimportant.

A candidate’s website, for instance, provides biographical and policy-proposal background in wonk-delighting detail. Valuable as a place to start, much of this information falls into the category of public relations spin.

For less biased examination and evaluation, a voter also needs to probe other sources for analytical reports devoted to fact-checking or ad-watching that offer independent, open-minded assessments of candidate charges and claims. More accessible than ever before, these features help clarify conflicting information from competing camps.

For example,, a website conducted by the Annenberg Public Policy Center at the University of Pennsylvania, scrutinizes statements and commercials with the announced objective of “Holding Politicians Accountable.” In addition, the Fact Checker features of The Washington Post and seek (in a newly coined phrase) “to truth squad” whatever utterances or claims warrant investigation throughout the 2008 campaign.

Working on the principle that “comment is free, but facts are sacred,” this new initiative awards specific grades. While a “Geppetto” signifies truthful accuracy, four levels of “Pinocchios” denote proximity to veracity. A single one points out modest manipulation of the facts, with four long-nosed figures reserved for “Whoppers.” is another similar and valuable source. Jointly conducted by the St. Petersburg Times and Congressional Quarterly, this project dissects “speeches, TV ads, interviews and other campaign communications” to determine where on its “Truth-O-Meter” political messages deserve to be classified.

“Facts are stubborn things,” the adage goes, and getting to the bottom of any thorny subject requires digging by the electorate. No matter how credible, a single medium of information is never sufficient for establishing factual context or verifying accuracy.

This continuing process of civic surveillance is critical to contemporary citizenship. In pursuing the truth, a voter also learns whether a contender is speaking and acting ethically. If a candidate’s words or deeds seem morally problematic, should that trouble a voter? Could it possibly foreshadow future conduct?

Before conferring the power of the presidency on anyone, “We the people” have our own power of holding each candidate accountable to us. That power, though, comes with an obligation—to be active, engaged and informed in the months before what Mr. Dooley called “Choosday,” the Tuesday in November when Americans vote.

Robert Schmuhl is the Walter H. Annenberg-Edmund P. Joyce professor of American studies and journalism at Notre Dame, where he directs the John W. Gallivan Program in Journalism, Ethics & Democracy. His most recent book is In So Many Words: Arguments and Adventures .