Negative ads overshadow real issues of a campaign

The winners and the voters who were swayed by their words, personal charm and negative ads have a big job ahead translating the mid-term election from fiction into reality.

What we the people had in store already was evident back in June. A group of policy wonks met at the National Press Club to ponder “Is Politics Brain-Dead?” The Washington Post columnist Dana Milbank reported that “confronted with the tough issues _ Iraq, immigration, the minimum wage _ lawmakers weighed their options and then went with their default position: exchange taunts.”

One of those razzings backfired on John Kerry. He had to apologize for botching a joke about troops serving in Iraq. Most of the public followed the news that far. But Kerry’s mouth kept moving. The former presidential candidate taunted back at critics Tony Snow, Bush’s press secretary, calling him “a stuffed suit mouthpiece,” and “doughy Rush Limbaugh, who…will take a break from belittling Michael J. Fox’s Parkinson disease…Bottom line, these Republicans want to debate straw men because they are afraid to debate real men.”

Sound-bite insults may help make a point, but something more fundamental is at stake. It has to do with finding truth-in-advertising. For example, what is a voter to think when Congress fails to act on real problems or when it spends days on non-issues?

Not a single campaign to my knowledge picked up on new data by Manhattan Institute’s conservative researcher Tamar Jacoby reporting that immigrants have a minimal effect on wages. Upwards of 56 million new jobs will be created through 2012, half of them profiling the characteristics of low-status immigrant workers. During the same period, 75 million baby-boomers will retire. Assuming they were performing necessary work, are we prepared to replace them?

Jacoby argues that what we need to regain control over illicit entry “is not to crack down, but to liberalize.”

What campaign said that, huh? Are the politicians to blame or is it the voters’ willingness to allow them to divert our attention?

Do voters suffer from what economic anthropologists call “relative deprivation?” That is the discontent people feel when they compare themselves to better-off peers and sense they have less than they deserve. It’s the feeling you get when your brother-in-law shows up for Thanksgiving dinner and parks his new Lexus alongside your 10-year-old Chevy.

Relative deprivation is a common after-effect when income differences are as great as they are now. We end up pushing around low-income immigrants and morbidly imposing bad policy answers on ourselves.

A more realistic approach to keep our nation competitive would encourage everyone (including those who are retiring) back into the classroom. Also include immigrant children, many of whom are vindictively being denied by state initiatives access to higher education opportunities. Instead, 26 states had some kind of immigration “reform” on their ballots, none of which will make the social environment less toxic.

This campaign season, did you hear a single candidate issue a John Kennedy-style challenge to the electorate? Who dared to debate our nation’s sobering environmental options? Instead, we allowed office-seekers to trade taunts, not solutions. We accept appeals to our vanity and our fictional fears and phobias.

After two terms in office, former President Dwight Eisenhower warned us against “unwarranted influence” by a military-industrial complex and the “disastrous rise of misplaced power.” The antidote, he said, was “an alert and knowledgeable citizenry.”

Not bushels of money to smear the opposition on TV. “527” political organizations, an IRS designation for committees created to influence campaigns, had raised $131 million. In addition, Democratic fundraising committees had received $304 million and Republicans $419.6 million. That was on top of the money spent by the individual campaigns.

According to the non-partisan Campaign Finance Institute, a candidate who spent about half a million dollars to run for a House seat a decade ago today will on average exceed the million-dollar mark.

Money for more pulp fiction? Maybe, just maybe, if we were to set higher standards for ourselves as informed citizens, we could demand better performances from the candidates.

(Jose de la Isla writes a weekly commentary for Hispanic Link News Service. E-mail: joseisla3(at) For more stories visit