When I told two reporters I thought Attorney General Jack Conway eventually would regret distributing a TV ad casting doubt on the sincerity of Senate candidate Rand Paul's Christian beliefs, I did not view it as an especially remarkable prediction.
My phrasing ended up in the headlines, though, and spread all over the country through Internet news sites. Conway quickly informed the media that he did not at all regret his attack on Paul.
Because of the attention predictions like mine have received, I should explain why someone looking at Conway's ad as a scholar or analyst would conclude that it was an unfortunate decision.
First, I thought it would be obvious that the ad was using innuendo to question Paul's faith. It refers to four items from Paul's past, some personal and some political, and religion was the unifying element. I expected viewers would interpret the ad as inviting them to doubt Paul's Christianity. That part of my prediction was correct: News headlines, as well as editorial commentary from across the political spectrum, have described the controversy as being about religion.
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Second, I predicted the advertisement would attract criticism from many who otherwise would be natural allies of a Democratic senatorial candidate. Liberal commentators have been rightfully upset with conservative loudmouths for helping perpetuate the belief that President Barack Obama is secretly a Muslim. Others have criticized the implication, lurking in this conspiracy theory, that there should be a religious test for public office.
I did not expect that liberals would suddenly abandon these principles when similar tactics were used by one of their own — and indeed many have not. Many were especially troubled to see a Senate candidate openly engaging in this sort of thing.
Third, my prediction based on past elections is that Conway's ad will alienate many voters. Americans have a long tradition of distrusting candidates who seem too hungry for power. In the 19th century, presidents generally avoided campaigning for office, merely "standing for a party's platform while others did the dirty work. Times changed, and Americans became more comfortable with candidates grooming themselves for power and then "running for office," but limits persist. We periodically see attacks on "career politicians." Candidates often suggest that they are running by popular demand. Most important, today's campaigns usually protect their candidate from delivering the nastiest attacks. Americans still consider the naked pursuit of power to be vulgar.
Of course, one rebuttal is that religion is important to Southerners. If you understand the power of religion in the Southeast, some say, you'd realize Conway's ad will help him. This response sounds more like a stereotype than a proper analytical judgment. Evangelical Christianity echoes with themes of redemption. Your past is not the issue; it's whether you now truly "accept Jesus into your heart," and that's a personal relationship God will judge.
With politicians, religious-right voters often are willing to accept issue positions on abortion or gay marriage as evidence of sincerity, and losing credibility requires sinning after claiming to be saved.
That being said, I did not predict Conway would necessarily regret his ad because it would make him lose. Indeed, I will not be surprised if evidence shows he loses fewer votes than he costs Paul.
Negative advertising works because it turns off voters, not because it wins them over. It succeeds at keeping the opponent's supporters home. Anything Conway does to spread disgust with the election can help his cause, because currently Republican voters are more enthusiastic than Democratic ones.
I certainly accept that, in the short term, Conway might profit from his decision.
What I predicted is that he will regret it eventually, whether he wins or loses.
History shows that candidates who have indulged in red-baiting or race-baiting or (as in this case) religion-baiting never really wash out the stain.
Either they lose, and therefore become a sad footnote in the history of a state's politics, or they win but the victory is soured by what they had to do to achieve it. They spend the rest of their lives reading about how they first reached high office by playing dirty.
So to the extent my analysis might have been clouded by wishful thinking, to the extent my comments reflect not expertise but a concern with the quality of our political life, it reflected a hope that (regardless of the election outcome) Kentuckians will look back on this whole episode with sorrow, and I'd like to believe that one of those regretful citizens will be Jack Conway himself.