Wednesday, October 15, 2008

'Negative Campaign' Label can Obscure Germane Content

The content of so-called 'negative' ads and campaigning is often relevant to a candidate's fitness for office. Hallmarks of the 2008 'negative' campaign cycle have included assertions that Sen. Obama associates with terrorists (1) (2) and that Sen. McCain is too old and feeble to be entrusted with the presidency (3) (4). These 'negative' message strategies have been deployed by both candidates going back to their respective primary campaigns (5) (6).

Of course, such talking points are considered legitimate topics for discussion by one side and
ad hominem attacks by the other. Remember, though, that ad hominem is only a logical fallacy if the personal remarks bear no logical relation to the conclusion (7). However, if the conclusion is that a candidate is unfit for office, then premises that their character or health (mental or physical) are lacking are certainly relevant and logically valid. If such conditions were to obtain (i.e., if Obama were actually to be sympathetic with the cause of domestic terrorists,or if McCain were to be physically or mentally incompetent to serve in office), they could pose legitimate and substantial difficulties for the country--risks that are manifestly legitimate topics for debate in an election.

While so-called 'negative' attacks may be mean-spirited and rely upon untrustworthy or discredited information, they should not be automatically excluded from the political discourse based on their content. Whatever the motivations behind such methods, their content is certainly germane to a presidential campaign.

(1) Stewart, Martina. "Palin hits Obama for 'Terrorist' connection." CNN.com, October 5, 2008.
(2) Klein, Aaron. "Obama worked with terrorist." WorldNetDaily, February 24, 2008.
(3) Frederick, Don. "Things younger than John McCain." The Swamp, May 20, 2008.
(4) Quindlen, Anna. "How Old is Too Old?" Newsweek, February 4, 2008.
(5) Media Matters for America. "Media once again uncritically report McCain's criticism of Romney's negative ads without mentioning McCain's numerous ads attacking Romney." January 31, 2008.
(6) Mason, Jeff and Ellen Wulfhorst. "Obama, Clinton trade barbs over negative tactics." The Boston Globe, April 18, 2008.
(7) Kahane, Howard and Nancy Cavender. Logic and Contemporary Rhetoric. Wadsworth: Belmont (2006). P. 73.

From this definition ("attacking his opponent rather than his opponent's evidence and arguments") it can be inferred that an attack bearing no relation to an opponent's evidence or arguments will bear no logical relation to the reasons for the opponent's conclusion.

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