It pains me to say it, but something fundamental has changed in Maine.
The muck and mire of gutter politics has traversed the Piscataqua River, oozed its way up Interstate 95 and settled brazenly into our political discourse. Today, even in Maine, candidates must overcome not only their ballot opponents, but, increasingly, remote and anonymous purveyors of innuendo and sleaze.
Politics has always been a contact sport, of course. Every candidate knows that he’ll need both sharp elbows and thick skin, for there have long been Lee Atwater types only too happy to play the race card, or to fire up rumor mills whose sole purpose is to smear through untraceable whispering campaigns.
Yet by and large we’ve been able to avoid much of that garbage here, even as we’ve watched it play out nationally.
Not any more.
In 2010, independent gubernatorial candidate Eliot Cutler was smeared first by party-affiliated, race-baiting mailings that questioned his business experience and commercial ties to (gasp!) China. Then he was slimed by a foul, anonymous website whose avowed purpose was to “educate,” but whose methodology was simply to denigrate and insinuate.
The authors of the website chose to remain anonymous, citing a noble tradition of protected political free speech that recognizes the perils of criticism and shields those who seek to question leaders and other persons of influence.
But in fact, anonymous websites like “The Cutler Files” bear as much resemblance to political discourse as fast food does to fine dining. The authors cloak themselves in anonymity, concealing their short, sharp knives, but ultimately they deploy them with all the insouciance and unaccountability of an Internet chat room.
And although we can say, “Consider the source,” the truth is that the relentless drip, drip, drip of disinformation makes a difference. An election takes place, reputations are besmirched, and lives are changed.
But the anonymous authors call it a job well done.
How virtuous and admirable to speak truth to power from the comfort of a secure, undisclosed location.
Now the putrid innuendo machine is gearing up to go after U.S. Senate candidate Angus King. At first the U.S. Chamber of Commerce purchased television time to broadcast rather childish pieces that poked fun at King’s name (he’s the “King of Spending!,” get it?) But when that didn’t work, conservative bloggers got into the act, attacking King’s wife and obliquely raising questions of marital infidelity in the foulest, most low-rent, and utterly unfounded fashion.
Most of us naturally recoil at this kind of sleaze, and some may even channel their outrage into actions supporting the very candidates victimized by hyper-partisan attack. But the sad truth is that many who are less engaged in the political process and less familiar with the candidates themselves may be swayed by the unrelenting onslaughts of sludge.
Much of the current problem can be attributed to the Supreme Court’s infamous Citizens United decision, which permits virtually unlimited and anonymous contributions to so-called Super PACs. These organizations and their mutant progeny are not formally affiliated with any candidate, yet they focus on and advocate for issues unmistakably identified with a particular candidate, who, conveniently, enjoys plausible deniability even as the ads go on and on, eviscerating, always anonymously, the candidate’s opponent.
I wasn’t born yesterday, and I understand the concepts of free and protected speech, legal status and so on as much as the next guy. But just because you can do something doesn’t mean you should do it.
Nor is it coincidence that the most recent targets of anonymous smear jobs are independent candidates without a party infrastructure that supports them directly or fundraises for them through issue advocacy. Cutler and King embody the principle that message trumps party, and that is a very threatening notion.
Whether King – or, if he chooses to run again, Cutler – can overcome the onslaught of negative and anonymous sludge remains to be seen. Both individuals have in their favor the fact that here in Maine we live and work close to our candidates. They are our neighbors, our co-workers and, often, our friends.
So I’m hoping this election sticks a fork in the eye of sleazy, big-money, anonymous smear-job tactics. I’m hoping that the results of this election and subsequent elections in Maine show the country that the electorate doesn’t have to accept this garbage.
I’m hoping that if a candidate or a supporter of another candidate feels strongly about something or someone, he will have enough integrity to own up to it.
It really isn’t very difficult. Watch this:
I’m Perry Newman, and I approved this message.
Perry B. Newman is a South Portland resident and president of Atlantica Group, an international business consulting firm based in Portland, with clients in North America, Israel and Europe. He is also chairman of the Maine District Export Council. His website is perrybnewman.com/.