Opinion: The New Age of Negative Campaigning

October 2 2012, 1:39 PM

Over the weekend, Rick Enstrom, the Republican candidate for House District 23 (Jefferson County), threatened to get his lawyers involved over a campaign mailer claiming that Enstrom had once been arrested in Grand Junction for selling cocaine paraphernalia from the record store he owned in the 1980s. In fact, although Enstrom did receive a summons to explain his selling of “smoking accessories,” authorities dismissed the complaint against him after he agreed to stop.

Leaving aside the fact that any record store selling such items in the 1980s was generally a hallmark of being a pretty decent record store, the incident underscores a central theme to this year’s elections: That Democrats and their supporters have begun deploying—in campaigns big and small throughout the nation—the same bare-knuckle tactics that have historically been used against them.

According to the Denver Post’s account of the Enstrom incident, the mailer in question originated from the Colorado Accountable Government Group, a Democrat-friendly 527 organization that’s been accused of using other unsavory campaign tactics this year. It’s just one of many left-leaning groups that have arisen in the wake of (or been emboldened by) the Citizens United Supreme Court ruling in 2010—popularly known as the "corporations are people" case—that prohibited the United States government from limiting independent political expenditures by corporations and unions. 

The question is whether this is a good thing. After all, scummy politics remain scummy politics, regardless of their source. For at least the past several decades, Republicans have usually used more over-the-top ads, claims, and flyers to help win elections than Democrats have. Not that Dems haven’t also done this; the GOP has simply been better at it. (Anyone who wants to determine who really started it is welcome to resolve that inane debate on the nearest elementary school playground.) Democrats have largely abandoned or failed at these tactics because liberals tend to want to please everyone and at least try not to offend anyone, which muddies their ability to throw campaign-trail knockout punches. Conservatives, meanwhile, often just want to win.

Political commentators have said this is the most negative campaign we’ve ever seen, and anyone who watches TV or reads the news couldn’t reasonably disagree. Maybe it’s about time; maybe it’s an encroaching cancer on our democratic (small-d) system. I can see both sides. It reminds me of the women’s professional boxing organizations that have emerged in recent years: While I can't (and wouldn’t) prevent them from doing it, I don’t think the fact that we’re all now free to beat each other senseless should necessarily be taken as a sign of societal progress or enlightenment.

Will President Obama and Governor Romney elevate the dialogue? 5280 is covering the Presidential debate, so visit 5280.com or the Twitter feeds of @NatashaJGardner or @LucHatlestad on October 3 for live updates and commentary.

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