Lee Cataluna: Attack Ads Are Hurting More Than Just Their Political Targets

Gun Rights

Much has been said about how bad the negative campaigning is this year and how all those low-blows and sucker punches are landing on the targeted candidates.

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But they signed up for the fight.

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What about the damage that those attack ads do to us?

That stuff isn’t confined to the battleground of the big political races. It spreads throughout the community like a virus. Negative campaign ads are all over television, on the radio, in print, on social media and shoved into everyone’s mailbox. There’s no way to avoid the onslaught.

Voting in this year’s primary election is anything but inspiring. Everybody is saying the same thing about themselves (more housing, less crime, for the keiki), but that self-promotion is all but drowned out by the ads that make you feel like everyone is crooked. Big mainland money is being used to smear candidates by accusing them of accepting big mainland money.

Does it feel at all like Hawaii is about to turn the corner into an era of something truly inspiring? Sadly, no, not when there’s so much mud splattered that everything seems unclean.

The best political campaigns are about hope. They’re built on a foundation of moral character and dignity and a commitment to lift up the spirit of the community. What we have right now is the opposite of high ideals and honorable ethics. It’s a no-holds-barred bloodsport.

What is so deplorable is the way candidates who benefit from these attack ads nimbly distance themselves from the stench by saying, “Oh, that’s not my campaign. I had nothing to do with that.”

Really? Political operatives are spending big money to kneecap your opponent and there’s not one thing you can do about it? That’s another way of saying, “I can’t control people speaking on my behalf,” which is such a contemptible cop-out for someone who claims to be a leader.

The attacks coming directly from the candidates, without the insulation provided by super PAC money, get points for bravado, but they also add mud to the water.

Democratic gubernatorial candidate Vicky Cayetano is now running attack ads against frontrunner Lt. Gov. Josh Green, and she actually teamed up with her hothead opponent Kai Kahele in a joint press conference to criticize Green, saying (again) that he hasn’t disclosed the source of his personal income when, in fact, he has talked about his medical practice quite a bit.

Green himself hasn’t run negative ads, but he gets riled when provoked, and dropped the term “slum lord” when referencing Kahele’s Tennessee real estate holdings.

image from Be Change Now TV ad attacking Sylvia Luke July 2022
An image from the Be Change Now TV ad attacking Sylvia Luke. Screenshot/2022

In what has to be one of the sleaziest and most dishonest attacks this season, congressional candidate Jill Tokuda is portrayed as a gun loving friend of the National Rifle Association by a super PAC that took cues from Democratic opponent Patrick Branco’s campaign. Branco says he hasn’t coordinated with the PAC, of course, which would be against campaign laws, but he hasn’t spoken out against the smear job on his opponent either.

Sylvia Luke has similarly been attacked by ads paid for by Be Change Now, the rebranded but still bullying political arm of the Hawaii Carpenters’ Union, which is supporting one of her opponents for lieutenant governor, Ikaika Anderson. Anderson’s ads play up what a great guy and caring family man he is, leaving the smear-job on Luke to the carpenters, but of course there’s no coordination here, either.

Really? Political operatives are spending big money to kneecap your opponent and there’s not one thing you can do about it?

Negative campaigning is a sign of weakness. Voters consistently tell pollsters they don’t like it. It’s not something the frontrunner tends to do. It’s for losers. Like we tell kids about playground bullies, there’s actually something wrong with their self-esteem that makes them act that way.

But the bigger point is that negative campaigning hurts our fraying democracy, especially today, when people have so many reasons to disengage with the news, hunker down and maybe even give up on voting altogether.

Media outlets are raking in the money by running all the negative campaign ads while their own journalists are writing stories and shaking their heads about how all that stuff is really nasty this year. Twitter finally shut down former president Donald Trump’s account because his content was frequently false and incendiary. Local TV news, however, is happy to play the game by taking the money and pretending to be outraged at the same time.

It’s hard to imagine that Hawaii politics could get any uglier, though we know from sad experience that there is no end to how bad things could get. Any candidate indulging in negative campaigning as a means to an end, a way to win at any cost, should be judged by that tactic.

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