What others say: Political ads show relentless focus on trivia rather than real issues

  • Wednesday, September 3, 2014 9:02pm
  • Opinion

Among those who have the power to do anything about it, this editorial will almost certainly fall on deaf ears. That’s a strange thing to say right off the bat and continue anyway, but this is an issue that deserves discussion whether it sways those controlling advertising budgets for the Outside groups that will dominate airwaves now through the November general election. Alaska is a great state, and it deserves a great debate by those seeking to represent it.

That means focusing on the issues, not on the “gotcha” moments that tell us nothing about a candidate’s ability to serve the state.

To a certain extent, a focus on attacking perceived weaknesses as opposed to spelling out distinctions on matters of policy is endemic to all politics. After all, the public deserves to know if a candidate truly has shortcomings that would prevent him or her from serving the people properly — issues of corruption, say. But too often, candidates and their supporters slip into the realm of trivialities that have nothing to do with substance — whether a candidate is wearing an American flag lapel pin, for instance, or what kind of car he or she drives. The “silly season” of politics seems to never end, and in the case of this year’s U.S. Senate race, it’s certainly here already.

The focus on negative diversions as opposed to substance is typified among groups supporting Republican candidate Dan Sullivan by their recent attacks on Sen. Mark Begich’s attendance record for votes. Negative ads run by advocacy group Americans for Prosperity slammed Sen. Begich for missing 4.5 percent of the Senate’s roll call votes, putting him in the lowest 20 percent of Senators by percentage of votes missed. The ad didn’t mention that Sen. Begich missed many of those votes due to significant travel distances between Alaska and Washington, D.C., and that he owns the best voting record among the state’s Congressional delegation. Rep. Don Young has missed nearly 15 percent of House votes in his decades of service — three times as many as Sen. Begich — but that didn’t stop Americans for Prosperity awarding him a 76 percent approval rating (they scored Sen. Begich at a meager 12 percent). What’s more, it seems obvious that what matters isn’t the few votes missed, but the positions taken on the many consequential votes Sen. Begich has cast over the past six years. We’d like to see debates over those positions, as discussion of the issues and how they affect Alaska are far more consequential than the 3 percent of votes that are the difference between Sen. Begich and the top 10 best-attending senators.

Sen. Begich’s supporters aren’t blameless in making mountains of molehills, either. The Put Alaska First PAC, which supports the senator, has relentlessly gone after Mr. Sullivan’s pedigree with regard to residency, drawing attention to his out-of-state residences or his relatively short tenure living in the state. But at heart, while we like to flaunt our sourdough status, it’s hard to make the case that Mr. Sullivan doesn’t have ample experience with Alaska issues. He served both as the state’s attorney general and the Commissioner of the Department of Natural Resources, positions which require great familiarity with the state’s unique challenges.

If it were solely the candidates themselves, public pressure might be enough to keep them focused on the issues. But the state Democratic and Republican parties, as well as the well-funded political interest groups that support each candidate, are only too happy to keep making unsubstantive, ankle-biting attacks in hopes that one will cripple their opponent. They’re faceless enough, too, that fingers can be pointed in various directions to disclaim responsibility for their actions.

That’s a shame. Alaska is a great state, and it deserves real and meaningful debate on the issues, not the same mudslinging that defines Washington, D.C., politics.

We can’t say we have any hope that the silliness will stop — but it should.

— Fairbanks Daily News-Miner,

Aug. 31

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