David Cox: Highway to the low road

Column by David Cox

Among other things, I teach ethics at Dabney. That is why I’m all the more uncomfortable with the direction of this year’s political campaign.

Ever since both presidential candidates promised, each in his way, a new form of politics, my discomfort, like the campaign, is growing worse. Yes, Barack Obama took any statement by John McCain on the U.S. maintaining troops in Iraq way out of context. Same with McCain’s unwise definition of “rich” being one with $5 million. And Obama’s mocking McCain’s not doing e-mail, IMHO, may be a backward compliment: A president has better ways to spend his time (though maybe these great deals from Nigeria could help balance the federal budget).

The McCain ad about Obama wanting kindergartners to learn of sex before they learn to read, though, hit a new low.

Perhaps because the very idea was so nauseating, as well as preposterous, it couldn’t be true: and it wasn’t. The Illinois law actually aimed at teaching youngsters how to sense inappropriate sexual advances so they can protect themselves (how nauseating that this should ever be needed, but it is). Part of a wider educational measure, It passed, years ago, with wide bipartisan support.

McCain’s people stand by the ad as a “true reflection of Barack Obama’s record.” But even the master guru of GOP slimeballing, Karl Rove, called it “one step too far” by the McCain campaign. He said McCain’s claims “did not pass the 100 percent truth test.”

I’ll say.

Offensive in itself, the ad raises other questions, as opening Pandora’s mythical box often does. Why would John McCain, who bitterly resented being Rove-slimed in the 2000 campaign, do so to another? Why would he pledge to his convention to end the “rancor” in Washington as part of cleaning up the place, then use the same tactics that fostered that rancor in the first place?

His handlers can only have concluded that he needs to do this to win. Poll after poll confirms that, as much as people hate negative advertising, it works, even if it’s blatantly false. Yet resorting to such tactics falls into the ethical pitfall of allowing ends to justify means.

If so, McCain is painting himself into a terrible paradox: that he is using dirty means to win an election in the name of the noble end of cleaning up political life that is beset with the exact same dirty means that he is using to win in the first place.

There was once a candidate who said, earlier this year, “I will not take the low road to the highest office in the land.” That was Sen. McCain.

Ironically, should he get to the highest office, the low road he is now taking may inhibit his ability to govern, especially in the bipartisan, less rancorous way that he claims to want. It will be rather hard for President McCain to make nice-nice with Senators Obama, Biden, and their friends (who are likely to comprise an even larger majority in Congress) after bemucking them.

By now we should know that a candidate will govern as he or she has campaigned. The current administration, to use Rove’s understatement, did not pass the 100% truth test in winning office, nor with people and issues ever since. The road to the highest office, once taken, is often too hard to exit.

At least I have plenty of examples this year to discuss with my ethics class.

Unfortunately, they are not good ones.

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