Let's pretend it's the middle of October, and John Doe and Jane Smith are both seeking the same U.S. Senate seat. Doe, who is down a few points in the polls, hears a rumor that Smith attended a fund-raiser sponsored by a Jewish group at the home of a couple who happen to be Jewish.
Doe's campaign runs a television ad, replete with scary music, that says: "Jewish Americans and Jane Smith. She hid from cameras. Took 'Jewish' money. What did Jane Smith promise in return?"
John Doe and his staff members who devised this ad are enormous bigots, right? No one would hesitate to point that out. No right-thinking person would defend such an ad.
Plug in another religion if you like. "Jane Smith took 'Buddhist' money, Jane Smith took 'Hindu' money," etc. Doe and co. are still bigots.
It would seem to follow, then, that Doe and his staffers are still bigots when they accuse Smith of taking money from atheists, calling it "Godless money."
You may recognize this scenario. It played out in North Carolina last year when U.S. Sen. Elizabeth Dole attacked opponent Kay Hagan because Hagan attended a fund-raiser held at the home of two atheists. (The couple – businessman Woody Kaplan and author Wendy Kaminer – sponsored the event, not any "Godless" group.)
Recently, the man who engineered that ad, Marty Ryall, reflected on the campaign for Politics Magazine. Ryall talks about how the ad came to be aired and discusses some of the challenges Dole faced in her campaign.
Ryall recounts all of this in a matter-of-fact way. He writes, "We had polled the issue in mid-September and found that it tested very well among the key groups that we needed to win. We needed to raise intensity among Republican voters, as well as shift the focus of Independents and conservative Democrats from our negatives to Kay Hagan in an unfavorable way. We needed something that had some shock value and would also generate an earned media component – and that was the 'Godless' issue."
It apparently never occurred to Ryall that he was engaging in rank bigotry, that the type of ad he green-lighted would never have been considered had it tarred any other group. He does no soul-searching and never once questions whether the decision to use the ad in any way damaged his integrity (perhaps because he doesn't have any to damage). Ryall's only regret is that the ad didn't work!
Now, I didn't just fall off the turnip truck yesterday. I've lived in the Washington area for 23 years and followed politics before moving here. I know what campaigns are about and am aware that politics is a blood sport. The sad truth is, if you want your candidate to win, you have to explain not just why he or she is so great but why his or her opponent is not to be trusted.
Yep, it's rough-and-tumble out there. But that doesn't mean there are absolutely no boundaries. Over the years, certain types of attacks have become unacceptable. Blatant appeals to racism have more or less dried up, and rank anti-Semitism is no longer tolerated.
Yet Ryall seems to think it's still OK to attack an entire class of Americans as somehow evil, dangerous or un-American because of what they believe (or don't believe) about God. Dole must feel the same way, since she signed off on this repulsive ad and defended it to the hilt.
This is appalling bigotry. We can all take solace in the fact that Ryall's cynical and wicked scheme backfired badly. Let's hope he learns from that.
I don't expect Ryall to suddenly get ethical – I suspect it's too late for that. But perhaps the fact that Dole lost by 9 points will help him understand that next time, religious bigotry is not the way to propel your candidate to victory.
As for Dole, all I can say is that this was an especially shameful way to end a political career.