If you consider politics an honorable profession and are seeking elective office for a noble purpose, can you nonetheless use less-than-respectable campaign tactics? If your opponent gets down and dirty and you don’t, won’t that put you at a competitive disadvantage? How can you achieve your noble purpose if you don’t get elected in the first place?
That’s the eternal conflict between politics as the means of government – the “art of the possible” – and politics as the ends of government: Get the power and keep it. The Associated Press has illustrated the conflict with a story about “trackers,” out-in-the-open spies sent by political parties to record opponents at campaign stops in hopes of catching them in campaign-ending gaffes. “I felt dirty, I felt scummy,” one of these operatives said after resigning.
That was Kurt Holland, who had been hired on behalf of the U.S. Senate campaign or Republican Richard Mourdock to follow around the campaign of Democratic opponent Joe Donnelly. He resigned after making a small mistake in Indianapolis. He followed Marion County Judge Jose Salinas by mistake. Salinas called the cops on Holland, and they picked him up.
Holland, the AP says, is an atypical tracker. Most of them are half of his age of 45 and have very few qualms about being aggressive. One Democratic tracker was so aggressive he was kicked out of McFarling Foods in Indianapolis while waiting for Mourdock to appear last month, and Mourdock has complained of trackers even stalking him outside his home.
The intent of the trackers, armed with their video cameras and microphones, is to catch a candidate in a stumble so shocking it can flip an election on its head. Their proudest moment came in 2006, when former Sen. George Allen saw his Republican presidential bid blow up after he called someone in the crowd a “macaca,” considered an ethnic slur in some cultures. The trackers’ efforts are said to be just one more indication of how vicious politics has become.
That’s not quite accurate. In the presidential election of 1828, incumbent John Quincy Adams was literally labeled a pimp, and challenger Andrew Jackson was accused of adultery and murder. The chief difference between past dirty campaigns and present ones is that it’s far easier for the electorate to follow campaigns now. With communications so slow, candidates could spread lies and rumors about each other. Today at least the vicious attacks are more likely to be based on some version of the truth – something a candidate actually said on the campaign trail.
And the simple fact is that with modern technology, we can all be trackers. Politics will end up as dirty or as clean as we choose it to be.