There's a tired old joke that's been circulating through this country's office cubicles for decades, usually accompanied by a rough sketch of a white collar toadstool sitting at a desk. The worker spore laments, "I must be a mushroom; why else would they keep me in the dark and feed me nothing but BS?"
I've thought about that trite piece of humor often in recent weeks. It really does seem like as a nation we have been morphed into mushrooms, kept in the dark about what's going on and fed a steady diet of misinformation calculated to scare us into "staying the course".
What's frightening is that this year's election is the most important of our lives. Mushroom Nation better start demanding more sunlight and a healthier menu or we're going to set a new low record for voter turn out. As we undertake to "bring democracy to the Middle East," the example we set in our own election will communicate a whole lot more to the Islamic world about democracy-in-action than any high-blown preaching about it ever could.
Mushroom Nation gets the government it deserves. None of us has to settle for the shallow, empty quality of the presidential campaign so far. We can't be kept in the dark and lied to ... unless we allow it to happen. As free citizens, it's our responsibility to demand that candidates start addressing the issues that concern us.
We have to tell the media, through letters, the Internet and phone calls that this dreadful fascination with petty bickering is not what we expected when we asked for better campaign coverage. To explain how this campaign went so badly so fast, we need to retrace our steps back to the start of the mess and determine who actually benefits from this kind of low-road campaign.
Who we find there, of course, up to his neck in the infamous "Swift Boat ads" muck that set the tone for this downward spiral, is Karl Rove, the brains behind the Bush campaign. From the moment the Democrats settled on John Kerry early on the night of the Iowa Caucuses, Rove must have been sharpening his blades in anticipation, preparing for the dirty tricks that everyone knew were coming (there are always dirty tricks when Karl Rove is orchestrating a campaign) but that still caught the Democrats flat-footed.
And when the response from the Democratic camp was to point out the enormous mountain of chutzpah it takes for an administration made up of draft avoiders to criticize the war record of a man who volunteered for war duty—twice—and who was wounded for his efforts, well that just made matters worse.
That is also the consequence of the seemingly endless delving into old Pentagon files for George W. Bush's minuscule Texas Air National Guard records and the haggling over their authenticity.
Every time the Democrats think they are landing a killer punch they are only prolonging the agony. To Rove and his strategists, it truly doesn't matter what the truth is or was. Their concern is the bickering. That's what they want to see happen, for the basic, rock-bottom principle in the Karl Rove campaign manual is to make sure that voter turn-out is low. The lower the better.
Through years of practice, Rove has determined that the surest way to turn off voters is to cultivate the impression that both sets of candidates are quarrelsome exaggerators, stretchers of the truth and congenital liars who shouldn't be trusted within five miles of the national steering wheel.
He's got the process of turning-off voters down to a science. He's had to, given the fact that his party has for 70 years been the choice of a clear minority of the registered voters in this country. Yet they manage to win regularly. Hell, right now they control both houses of Congress, the presidency and the Supreme Court ... and registered Democrats outnumber them by a sizeable margin.
How do they do it? By suckering the Democrats into expending energy squabbling over silly sideshow stuff; stuff like trying to get Ralph Nader off the ballot or going to court over voter identification or Dan Rather's objectivity. It makes no difference whatever to this strategy which way the court battles are decided or if Dan Rather has actual photos of George W. Bush skipping National Guard meetings or whatever.
All that matters is that voters ask themselves: You don't really want to waste time voting for this mess, do you?
Once that seed germinates, millions of potential voters will find lots of reasons to stay home on Nov. 2. "A pox on all their houses" is the rallying cry of the Karl Rove school of electoral politics. "You've got better things to do than to try to figure out which one of these two bickering loudmouths is telling the truth ... or if either of them is. Just stay home."
Every poll on the subject shows that American voters hate negative campaigning.
So then, why do these presidential campaigns always degenerate into negativism?
Because negative campaigning works.
It depresses turnout; levels the playing field.
If turnout is high, the Democrats will win. It's simple, really. You want to stop being treated like a mushroom? Get out of that basement, shake off the BS and go vote.
The opinions expressed are solely those of the writer. E-mail Jerry@alibi.com.