I’ve covered a lot of political campaigns over the years, including — and this REALLY dates me — both of Ronald Reagan’s presidential campaigns and too many state, county and city races around Texas to count. But this current political season in Somervell County stands out.
No matter how much candidates decry “going negative” and trashing one’s opponent, many of them do. Why? Because it’s effective and it has the intended or unintended consequences of driving certain people to the polls — the party faithful — and keeping others away. It’s no wonder that voter turnout can run low sometimes while apathy remains high.
When was the last time you heard a candidate refer to his or her challenger as “my esteemed opponent?” The phrase conjures a time when politics was more civil. It now sounds positively quaint.
But it’s both refreshing and interesting that the campaigns in this election in Somervell County have been run without slinging even a handful of mud. Not publicly, anyway. Glen Rose’s famously active gossip mill — some call it the “undercurrent” — certainly has been churning lately, but I have yet to hear a candidate publicly criticize an opponent.
I have, however, received a couple of anonymous letters suggesting I might want to poke around a candidate’s background about this or that.
Even in political forums, the candidates have stuck to telling voters about their backgrounds, voting records if they’ve held offices and involvement in civic and charitable groups. Hardly ever is there a mention of the opponent except in oblique terms.
In fact, it's difficult to tell the political party affiliations among some candidates. Conservative Democrats aren't an extinct species in Somervell County, nor are moderate Republicans. The center still is a comfortable place for most of them.
When the Reporter asked all the candidates running for county offices in contested races a series of questions and published the answers in recent editions, they all stuck to issues and personal backgrounds, experience and civic service. Those, after all, are the most important things.
We at the newspaper had discussed hosting a public political debate, but we decided against it because there have been so many things going on in the community during the past several months. One candidate I mentioned it to even thought it was a bad idea. No one wants to stand up in public and even be perceived of “attacking” an opponent, he explained.
The race for our next representative in Congress hasn’t been quite so civil. I can tell the election is getting close just from the volume of e-mails I’ve received from the Chet Edwards and Bill Flores campaigns. My inbox is full and some of it reminds me of a bull.
Each candidate’s campaign handlers have gone to great lengths to scrutinize every word that comes out of his opponent’s mouth for some slip, some nuance that they can use to show a default of character, commitment or common sense. I’m not talking about just in this race, but in a lot of them. Candidates couch their statements so carefully that everything sounds like it comes from a script. And a lot of it does. Candidates are coached to stay “on message” and not veer into that dangerous territory of off-the-cuff straight talk.
This kind of predictable “sound bite” rhetoric pumps up the people who were going to vote for their respective candidates anyway, but also it turns off a lot of voters. It muddies the issues and polarizes the process. Others have lamented this ad nauseum and it’s too bad our democratic system wallows in the muck sometimes, but it’s unlikely to change.
So the tone of civility in an election is nice — as long as when it’s necessary to speak out people aren’t afraid to do so.
But public mud slinging or criticism isn’t Glen Rose’s style. The mud just floats along in the undercurrent, where discussions take place and decisions are made every day over coffee or around the dinner table or when chatting with an acquaintance at the post office, the grocery store or a restaurant. It’s not the silent majority anymore, but the volume hasn’t been turned up beyond a low hum.