20 March 2012

Idiot of the Week nominee: Paul Begala

Let's let the nominee speak for himself. From the current Newsweek:

Truth is, negative advertising is not some evil or nefarious practice. In fact, when I contributed to the Obama campaign in 2008, I wrote on the check: “For Negative Ads Only.” I love negative ads. When I see a positive ad, even one from a candidate I support, my reaction often ranges from bored to annoyed. But show me a negative ad—even one against a candidate I support—and my blood starts to race. What can I say? I’d much rather eat picante sauce than chocolate.

Begala can't leave well enough alone. Instead, he rationalizes his idiocy.

The biggest reason negative ads are so ubiquitous in politics, but much less common in commercial advertising, is this: elections present a mutually exclusive choice. It is legal to buy a can of Coke and a can of Pepsi on the same day, but you can’t vote for Obama and Romney in the same election. That mutual exclusivity pushes campaigns to frame the choice more sharply. Imagine if we had Cola Day once every four years—and you were stuck with your choice for those four years. Coke would say Pepsi makes you fat; Pepsi would counterattack that Coke makes you impotent. And they’d go downhill from there.
So the next time a public moralist starts lamenting the role of negative advertising in our political system, just explain that it’s an outgrowth of the stakes involved. As the old saying has it, politics ain’t beanbag—and a political campaign isn’t selling soft drinks. The outcome matters—and influencing it is worth every negative word or image a candidate and his team can muster.

Call me a public moralist if you must -- though it makes me feel uncomfortably like Rick Santorum -- but Begala seems to be saying the opposite of what he means. He claims that "a political campaign isn't selling soft drinks," but he means that it is -- that politicians only do what cola makers would if consumers were faced with a "mutually exclusive choice." I would expect hucksters to badmouth their competitors as a matter of competitive instinct under such circumstances, but shouldn't we expect better from the people who propose to lead us -- who have started campaigns not merely because everyone else sucks, presumably, but because they have better ideas or solutions to problems? "The outcome matters" is no excuse, or else it'd also be an excuse for cancelling elections or doing away with them altogether. If the outcome matters that much, after all, and if it matters in the way Begala implies -- that the "wrong" choice would be a national catastrophe -- should it really be left to the people's choice?  My point isn't that the outcome doesn't matter -- though that's actually the liberal ideal -- but that if the outcome does matter, shouldn't we vote based on the best information about the person we're voting for, rather than on the assumption that some other guy is rotten? If the outcome matters so much, merely avoiding the worst result won't cut it, yet Begala's merry negativity, itself a product of a Bipolarchy that exacerbates the mutual exclusivity of choices, offers no other option. That's what makes him an idiot.

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