Saturday, January 30, 2016

An “Ad Hominem” Campaign

The dictionary defines “ad hominem” as “appealing to one’s prejudices, emotions, or special interests rather than to one’s intellect or reason”; “an attack against the person, challenging an opponent’s character rather than responding to the relevant argument or issues.” In a court of law, impeaching an opponent’s credibility is allowed to evaluate a witness’s testimony, but an ad hominem attack is a very different assault, often directed at opposing counsel and occasionally raw emotional assertions again witnesses in an effort to distract the trier of fact (judge or jury) from the facts and issues on trial. The path to impeaching a witness is a clearly set-out procedural approach whereas ad hominem attacks are simply disallowed. In political matters, the ad hominem attacks have become increasingly routine over time.
“The ad hominem argument is not a new phenomenon in American political discourse. A pamphlet was circulated telling of Andrew Jackson's ‘youthful indiscretions.’ Newspapers attacked Abraham Lincoln's policies using the words, ‘drunk,’ ‘too slow’ and ‘foolish.’ What is new is the greatly increased and much more visible use of negative campaign tactics, and the accepted relevance of the character issue. Personal matters that were once ‘off limits’ for media reporting are now probed into, using opposition research, and routinely used in attack ads.”
Andrew Jackson lost his first election to John Quincy Adams in 1924, winning the popular vote but not achieving enough electoral votes to avoid a decision by the House of Representatives. In 1928, Jackson tried running against Adams again, each side unleashing broadsides at each at each other. Most of these malignant assaults were in the form of flyers and statements other than from the candidates themselves (it was considered undignified for the candidates to make such statements directly).
“Both camps resorted to ad hominem attacks: Democrats continued to charge Adams with striking a 'corrupt bargain' with Henry Clay to steal the 1824 election from Jackson. Adams forces raked up charges of adultery against Jackson for having lived with [his future wife] Rachel [Donelson Robards] before her divorce was final, rank mudslinging that contributed to the sudden death of Mrs. Jackson just weeks after the election. They also charged Jackson with murder for having approved the execution of soldiers for minor offenses during the War of 1812.” Jackson won. “Swiftboating” allegations in the 2004 Bush-Kerry presidential contest notwithstanding, the 1928 presidential contest has long been considered the nastiest, most personally abusive ad hominem presidential campaign in American history. Until now.
Donald Trump, Washington outsider and incumbent dragon-slayer, probably surprised even himself that not only were his ad hominem attacks against fellow GOP candidates wildly successful, but even when fact-checking completely negated major factual statements, his poll numbers soared. He labeled Jeb Bush a “low energy” candidate, not remotely up to the job of president, lambasting his brother, George W., as pretty much responsible for failing to prevent the 9/11/01 World Trade Center attacks. Trump then attacked candidate Carly Fiorina based on her face. Trump leveled charges against Marco Rubio ranging from his Senatorial voting record to his youth and even his hair. He slammed fellow GOP debaters based on their excessive sweat, particularly Governor Chris Christie. Any time an opponent showed any vitality in a poll, Trump instantly followed up with an ad hominem assault.
I am quite surprised that Trump’s fellow candidates, each trying to out-conservative the other, have left his former nude model wife, Melania, alone, because Trump himself has hardly held back on rather personal sexual attacks on Bill Clinton – who at last count was not actually running for anything – as a slam on Hillary for staying with her purported Lothario husband. Hard to picture how the Evangelical community has ignored this facet of Mrs. Trump’s life and the seeming calm acceptance by the other Republican candidates. They’re probably too terrified to mount those attacks, given that Mr. Trump is the grand master of the responsive ad hominem vituperative. By the way, if you want to see a rather complete summary of Mr. Bill’s actual and alleged sexual dalliances, check out:
Unfortunately, Mr. Clinton’s sexual issues are actually his issues alone and have little or nothing to do with his candidate wife’s playing, as Trump as described it, the “woman card.” Yes, she is a woman, and there is no reason for her to ignore that reality. Mr. Trump’s sexist attack on Ms. Fiorina’s face kid of speaks for itself, and his conservative leanings clearly put him against issues like gay marriage, a woman’s choice regarding abortion, equal pay, which a majority of women find opposite of their stance on these issues.
Will Trump’s patterns of ad hominem attacks lead him to the GOP nomination, or will the Republican establishment find a way to contain his candidacy and push a less embarrassing candidate to the fore? Has he already set the new rules for the general election, a battle that seems to threaten a wide divergence from the issues into personal attacks? Why? Is it because the candidates actually might not know what to do to solve the serious problems of our time, so personal attacks are what’s left?
How do you clearly defeat ISIS? Even Congress refuses to vote on this issue. The candidates have been short on details, and even Hillary’s responses don’t generate any particular level of comfort. If the Affordable Care Act is repealed, what happens to all those folks currently covered under it? What replaces it? If the tax code is reformed, to either a flat tax or one with fewer rate levels, what replaces the billions and billions of dollars in a new shortfall under any of these proposals with a deficit that is slowly choking us to death? How does education get better and more affordable without more government funding? What happens to our crumbling infrastructure without remotely investing the two trillion dollars experts tell us we need?
Look at the weather reports from the past year. Republicans can’t deal with global warming without offending their Evangelical Base, and Democrats prefer a global partnership at a time when the United States is turning inwards. How we get more money into the pockets of Americans when we replace their work with outsourcing and automated machines? How do we stop the decline of the middle class and further enrichment of the one percenters (the ones who write the campaign funding checks)? Trump tells us he’ll build a wall and solve immigration problems accordingly, hiring smart people to do the rest where he has no expertise. This will fix the economy too, he maintains. No one has ever really explained the linkage with any credibility. And exactly why do we keep overfunding a military that hasn’t won a major military engagement since WWII, money desperately needed for so many domestic issues.
So maybe, we can expect an ad hominem campaign for 2016, because it’s too hard to tackle the issues themselves. We seem to lack the direction, capacity, unity and will to solve our issues. We even have trouble agreeing on root causes. Leadership seems to have taken second place to poll-watching and reactive campaigning. The new mantra: “I’ll do whatever the polls of scared and uncertain Americans tell me I should do.” No country has gotten better, stronger, achieved more and accelerated its growth or standing without clear leadership. Leading, unfortunately, means not just following.
I’m Peter Dekom, and exactly how do we solve the real problems we face when there is no consensus, where the factions are torn by uncompromising irreconcilable differences, and where our budgetary restraints have severely limited our options?

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