The dirty endorsement may clean up politics

The political world is all atwitter over the decision by the Denver Post, in most years a reliably Democratic newspaper, to endorse Republican Cory Gardner for the Senate seat currently held by Mark Udall.

Democrats are not happy. Former Sen. Gary Hart blasted the choice as “one of the worst endorsement decisions, not only by the Denver Post but by any serious newspaper, in my lifetime.” An essay in the New Republic called the endorsement “baffling, because the Post doesn’t agree with Gardner on almost any issue.”

It’s commonplace to say that newspaper endorsements make less difference than they used to, but they appear to matter more when they are unexpected – as this one was. And whether the Post’s editorial board is leading public opinion or following it, its choices almost always win. In short, it’s easy to see why Udall’s supporters are up in arms.

Now, I wouldn’t purport to suggest to Coloradans whom they should endorse or how they should cast their votes. But it is worth taking a moment to consider the ground for the newspaper’s decision – whether one agrees with it or not. The Post editorial board has provided a useful corrective that, should it become the norm, might even improve the politics of our age.

The endorsement begins by admitting that the paper’s sentiments on many issues are far closer to Udall’s positions than to Gardner’s. Then, after a bit of rather shaky boilerplate about the challenger’s potential as a bipartisan leader, comes what seems to be the true reason for the choice.

“Rather than run on his record,” the Post wrote, “Udall’s campaign has devoted a shocking amount of energy and money trying to convince voters that Gardner seeks to outlaw birth control despite the congressman’s call for over-the-counter sales of contraceptives. Udall is trying to frighten voters rather than inspire them with a hopeful vision. His obnoxious one-issue campaign is an insult to those he seeks to convince.”

In short, the endorsement is not so much pro-Gardner as it is anti-Udall. The Post disapproves of the campaign Udall has run, and is trying to send a message.

The notion of rejecting a candidate whose positions one likes because one doesn’t care for his tactics probably seems revolutionary in our electorally obsessed age. But it shouldn’t be. Voters such as myself, who are souring on politics, might actually be tempted back to the polls were the campaigns themselves less dispiriting – not to say idiotic. Yet one cannot clean up campaign tactics by complaining about them. Politicians, like most people, respond rationally to incentives.

If we want better campaigns, we need to punish those who run nasty ones – even when we like their positions. Otherwise we’re just contributing to the mess.

The argument is independent of whether one agrees with the Post about the negativity of Udall’s campaign. Living in Connecticut, have no basis for judgment. It is the idea, not the implementation, that I am lauding. There ought to be things that a party will not do in order to win.

Almost 20 years ago, I wrote that I had grown frightened of both liberalism and conservatism, because of their reckless certainties and their insistence on treating people as means, not ends. Nowadays, my fears of political parties and the movements that feed them have only grown greater.

Of course, every one of us could likely to name a cause or two on whose behalf we would sacrifice some of our ethical rules. The problem with today’s parties is their willingness to make the same sacrifice for every cause. There is no dissent or counter- argument not worth mocking or dismissing, no one who disagrees worth taking seriously. And from the Willie Horton ad in 1988 to Wendy Davis’ wheelchair ad in the current cycle, there are few political commercials not worth running, as long as the candidate’s people believe they will be effective.

This trend, I would like to believe, is what the Denver Post is trying to stop.

I’ve spoken to consultants and candidates alike who will bemoan the state of our election campaigns with one breath, and explain with the next that they have no choice. The other side is doing it, they say, and, besides, it works – that is, negative advertising, even false advertising, has an effect.

The remark puts me in mind of an old story, possibly apocryphal, about Lester Maddox, the segregationist governor of Georgia during the 1970s. Facing a period of unrest in the state’s prisons, Maddox was asked whether the problem was the conditions of confinement. Of course not, he said. The problem isn’t the quality of the prisons. It’s the quality of prisoner you get these days.

There is a lesson here. The Udall campaign, stung by the rejection of its “war on women” meme, has come up with a new campaign strategy – but only after the Denver Post editorial. Perhaps Udall will still prevail. Perhaps he'll lose. But it would be nice if other candidates were on notice of the possibility that what they’re doing to win might send their own partisans scurrying. Pause and wonder, that is, before things turn sour.

Stephen L. Carter, a Bloomberg View columnist, is a professor of law at Yale University.