Cold Hard Wonk

No sentiment but politics

Everything New is Old Again

Posted by JJ in Bad Press, Doubletake/Doubletalk, Vague Check, Strategic Planning (Saturday October 7, 2006 at 10:14 pm)

For those still so dazzled by technology that they haven’t lost faith in the “new economy”, John Harris of the Washington Post has a very flashy trinket on offer. In a week that’s already seen one forgetful recreation of past failures, Harris is as confident as a huckster economist in 1999 that new technology means new rules and a new game.

A number of recent political scandals, Harris says, have originated in the world of “new media” before moving into newspapers and television — the more “traditional” outlets. He points to three recent stories: George Allen’s “macaca” remark, captured by a cameraman paid by his opponent, Jim Webb; Mark Foley’s flirtation with Congressional pages; and Bill Clinton’s interview cum debate.

Supposedly, these stories include an “arresting personal angle”. And since Bill Clinton’s interview was broadcast on Fox News, the “new media” of Harris’s vision lumps web reporting together with television. All that makes it “new”, it would seem, is that it was recently established; and that’s enough, according to Harris, to make it something novel:

Cumulatively, the stories highlight a new brand of politics in which nearly any revelation in the news becomes a weapon or shield in the daily partisan wars, and the aim of candidates and their operatives is not so much to win an argument as to brand opponents as fundamentally unfit.

Which is enough to give any reader with a memory longer than a goldfish pause. When was it, exactly, that winning arguments was the primary aim of political campaigning? Lincoln’s famous debates with Douglas lost him the Senatorial election but won him the Presidential election two years later. Which election was about winning the argument and which about losing?

But more importanty, what’s so new about attacking the competence of one’s opponents? Has Harris never heard of the daisy commercial from Lyndon Johnson’s 1964 Presidential campaign suggesting Goldwater wasn’t the man to manage nuclear tensions? What about the 1993 Tory commercial hinting that Jean Chretien’s facial paralysis made him a poor choice to represent Canada abroad? What about the Ontario slogan in 1999: “Dalton McGuinty: He’s Just Not Up to the Job”? Perhaps he paid no attention to the allegations of sexual harassment against Clarence Thomas, suggesting that his personal behaviour made him a bad choice to make legal judgements? He might be forgiven for being unaware of the fact that homosexuality was added to the charges against Edward II of England, or that accusations of personal immorality were common weapons in classical political life.

But no, focusing on personal attacks at the expense of policy arguments really is a new wave in politics. How easily the eye can be blinded by a bit of fiber optics and more of the same old, same old.

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