by Marty Wilde
Every politician chooses to unite or divide. Dividers emphasize our differences and play to a political base, often by demonizing the other party. Uniters find areas of agreement and build relationships across political boundaries. As we enter into the heart of the election season, campaign messaging shows what each candidate chose.
The non-stop attack ads on broadcast TV are discouraging. I’ve been on the receiving end of many in the past, but I try not to respond. In my experience – 18,000 doors knocked and counting – voters want a positive approach. Character assassination doesn’t impress them. I’ve tried to speak as little about my opponents as possible, preferring to highlight my own qualifications and vision. I’m always happy to see positive ads out there, whether they’re from my party’s politicians or others. Positive ads give me hope that we may make progress, in a time when democracy itself is under attack.
Effective leadership communicates a positive vision of the future that inspires working together to achieve it. In 28 years of military service, I’ve had the privilege of serving under many terrific leaders and only a few bad ones. None were perfect, but even the bad ones had redeeming qualities. Gen. Petraeus, who was my boss in Afghanistan, inspired and supported all of us who worked under his command, though his pride eventually brought him down. Sen. Lindsey Graham offers me little inspiration, but Col. Lindsey Graham made sure that our team in Afghanistan received the recognition and promotions they deserved for their extraordinary efforts.
Just as tigers do not change their stripes, politicians do not miraculously develop leadership qualities after the election. Candidates who run negative campaigns do not suddenly become beacons of inspiration and bipartisanship. As I thought about how to evaluate campaign ads, I realized that a good model already exists in the Rotary Four-Way Test:
Of the things we think, say or do:
- Is it the TRUTH?
- Is it FAIR to all concerned?
- Will it build GOODWILL and BETTER FRIENDSHIPS?
- Will it be BENEFICIAL to all concerned?
While it is probably too much to ask that campaign ads be “beneficial to all concerned” in the context of elections in which only one candidate can win, perhaps we can agree that ads should at least be beneficial to a public that depends on a functional political process. It’s beneficial to draw comparisons that educate the voters, but not to mischaracterize opponents’ positions or history, nor to assassinate their character.
Too many campaigns never put forth their positive vision of the future. I recall one ad from the last cycle where the candidate’s whole message was that he would spend his term tearing down the other party. His (unsuccessful) bet was that people wanted to hurt the other party more than they wanted to see us all succeed.
As you evaluate candidates and decide how to vote, I hope you’ll ask yourself first whether the candidate has any positive vision of the future, and, if so, whether it’s one that inspires you. I work with many people whose visions of the future I disagree with in various respects, but we’re often able to find common ground because we’re focused on the common good. Whatever your personal positive vision of the future, I hope you choose to support candidates who campaign positively.