On running a "civil and polite" campaign
Roy Barnes on Wednesday, August 11th, 2010 in a television interview
"Bag of snakes" jab leads AJC PolitiFact Georgia to revisit Flip-O-Meter ruling
A TV political ad funded by Democrats calls Republican candidate for governor Nathan Deal "slippery as a bag of snakes."
This gave AJC PolitiFact Georgia's scribes pause.
The Democrats' candidate is former Gov. Roy Barnes. Didn't he say after the Republican primary runoff that "just because we have differences doesn’t mean that we have to call each other names"?
We pulled out our Flip-O-Meter, which detects whether politicians have flipped on their positions.
We've used the Flip-O-Meter on Barnes and his opinion on "civil and polite" campaigns before. On Aug. 11, Barnes said on WSB-TV that he'd try to run one.
"I think that you can show differences without being mean," Barnes said. "You know, it’s a Southern tradition to be civil and polite. There are differences, but they’re honorable people. And so just because we have differences doesn’t mean that we have to call each other names.
"But we do have a responsibility to show the differences, and I think they do, too. As long as it’s done in a respectful way and one that’s not personal, I think that we can do that."
In late August, we looked at Barnes' commercials to see if he was true to his word.
We found the ads were not nearly as nasty as those in the Republican gubernatorial runoff. They focused on important issues and cited facts correctly. But with each new TV commercial, he moved further from "civil and polite" territory. We ruled Barnes did a Half Flip.
So how's Barnes doing now? We peered into that bag of snakes with the help of two University of Georgia professors: Charles Bullock, an expert on Georgia politics, and Spencer Tinkham,an expert on political messaging.
The Democratic Party of Georgia paid for "Fabrication," the pro-Barnes commercial. It was posted on YouTube.com on Sept. 19.
It was a response to one released several days earlier by the Republican Governors Association.
In both ads, pairs of codgers sit at tables covered in red-checked tablecloths, sipping coffee and swapping homespun political wisdom over the whine of a harmonica.
In the Republican ad, the old men remember the term of Barnes, which ended in 2003, as an unhappy chapter in Georgia's history.
In Democrats' ad, "times were better" when Barnes was governor, one of the men says.
"So this Washington guy Deal is lying?" a second man asks.
"Slippery as a bag of snakes," his friend replies.
"I guess we can call him a 'shady Deal,' " the second man quips.
The scene ends. An announcer says, "Nathan Deal. Too corrupt, even for Congress."
Bullock's verdict: Negative.
Tinkham's verdict: It's not a negative ad. It's a comparative one. A true negative ad would not mention the positive things done by the candidate it supports, he said.
"I wouldn't call the ad 'civil and polite,' " Tinkham said. "But I think Barnes successfully separates himself from its content to such an extent that it is difficult to attribute the incivility and impoliteness to him. Rather, it seems that it's the 'good ole boys' in the coffee shop who are making the negative judgments."
In Barnes' defense, Emil Runge, a spokesman for Barnes' campaign, said the ad was in response to a "misleading" one by Republicans. He added that Barnes never said he would avoid pointing out differences between himself and Deal.
Since our experts were split and Runge made reasonable points, we looked at four other pro-Barnes TV commercials to see if the overall tone of Barnes' ads has shifted.
"Fresh Start," released Aug. 27, compares Barnes to Deal on ethics. Deal might spend too much time clearing his name on ethics accusations, it said. Barnes has no such problems, so he can devote more time to Georgians.
"Padlock," also released Aug. 27, features a cartoon of Deal in what appears to be a windowless storage closet. It said Deal is "hiding something," but offers no facts to back up its claim.
"Secret Lease," released Sept. 6, said Deal's release of his tax returns is "a desperate attempt to fool the voters" and calls Deal "too corrupt, even for Congress."
"Investigation," also released Sept. 6, scrolls through headlines about Deal's run-in with congressional ethics investigators and asks whether, if elected, he'd spend too much time clearing his name.
While "Fresh Start" and "Investigation" for the most part stick to the facts on the legitimate issue of candidate ethics, "Secret Lease" accuses Deal of trying to deceive voters without clear proof, and "Padlock" is almost all insinuation.
With these most recent commercials, Barnes is heading even deeper into negative territory. Deep enough to turn his Flip-O-Meter rating from a Half Flip to a Full Flop.