Thursday, April 24, 2014

Worst political ad?

The video above is an attack campaign ad for South Carolina from the Republican Governors Association. It’s a contemptible political ad, but is it among the worst ever made?

The ad attacks Vincent Sheheen, the Democratic candidate for Governor in South Carolina. He’s a former prosecutor who now represents both civil and criminal clients in his private law practice. As ThinkProgress points out:
The implication of this ad is that Sheheen is somehow unfit for public office because he once provided legal counsel to people accused of crimes. Indeed, the ad lists several serious crimes, including sex offenses and child abuse, that Sheheen’s clients were accused of committing. It is likely that many of these clients are very, very bad people.

But in the American justice system, we do not presume that anyone is guilty of a crime until after they have received a trial where they were represented by counsel — indeed, we afford all criminal defendants a presumption of innocence until proven guilty. Moreover, as the Supreme Court explained more than half a century ago, the right to a trial often means little unless criminal defendants enjoy the right to counsel. Without an attorney, Justice Hugo Black wrote in 1963, an innocent man “faces the danger of conviction because he does not know how to establish his innocence.”

Sheheen’s clients may very well have committed horrible crimes. But we do not lock people away in prisons in the United States until their guilt has been proven beyond a reasonable doubt. This is how we protect innocent men and women from winding up in those same prisons alongside the guilty. [links in the original]
It’s disturbing that the Republican Party thinks that people accused of crimes—perhaps wrongly—shouldn’t receive a vigorous defence, yet their line of attack in this ad certainly implies that. As ThinkProgress noted in the link above, this isn’t the first time Republicans have gone down this road, putting their partisan ideology ahead of justice under law.

What this made me think of was two previous Republican attack ads also described as the “worst-ever” American political ads. The first was the “Willie Horton” attack ad [link goes to YouTube] from the 1988 presidential campaign of Republican candidate George Bush the First. The second was the even more disgusting “Hands” attack ad [link goes to YouTube] from Republican US Senator Jesse Helms.

The difference is that the two previous “worst-ever” attack ads were blatantly racist, while this new attack ad is far subtler about it, relying on viewers’ stereotypes about who commits crimes without actually saying or showing anything like the two previous ads did, an approach that gives them plausible deniability if they’re accused of racism. The Republican Party knows that many fair-minded people would give them the benefit of the doubt because the racism isn’t explicit as it was in the earlier attack ads.

The Republicans’ attack on the fundamental principle of “innocent until proven guilty”, combined with their subtle racism, certainly places this ad on the list of the worst American political ads, but I’d say that Helms’ “Hands” attack ad against Harvey Gannt is still the worst, and the “Willie Horton” ad is far higher on that list than this one is. But if this attack on fundamental principles of law shows what the “modern” Republican Party thinks about the very concept of “innocent until proven guilty”, then that’s very frightening, indeed.

I hope that this attack ad is as bad as the Republicans will get. Somehow, I just don’t believe it will be.

No comments: