Labels and slogans have always been a part of American politics. So long as a voter realizes that his or her duty is to scrutinize a candidate significantly beyond a derisive portrayal in a short, pithy phrase, they do little harm.
But far too many voters are susceptible to limiting their consideration of a candidate to these rhetorical labels, among them “liberal” and “right-wing.”
As the Tribune’s Nick R. Martin reported last week, campaign staffers of incumbent Republican Andrew Thomas’ bid for another term as Maricopa County attorney have been referring to Democratic candidate Tim Nelson as a “former ACLU lawyer.”
Affiliation with the American Civil Liberties Union sets off many conservative voters who erroneously affix the beliefs of the ACLU’s clients to the group’s attorneys, staff and supporters. Over and over, ACLU officials have explained that in order to preserve our freedoms guaranteed by the Bill of Rights, Americans must strive to secure those rights for all, even for those with whom we do not agree or even revile.
In fact, attorneys who have had no affiliation with the ACLU often explain correctly that in our republic it is their responsibility to guarantee each person’s right to be represented by competent counsel, whether they as individuals believe their clients are guilty or innocent, financially liable or not, over what they are accused of in court. At times, this responsibility puts the same lawyers on different sides of political questions.
As Martin reported, that Nelson agreed on behalf of the ACLU to attempt in 1998 to halt the mayor of Gilbert’s declaration of seven days in November as “Bible Week” doesn’t in and of itself make Nelson a strident liberal.
Nor does something Thomas’ supporters neglected to mention — Nelson’s work a few years later as Gov. Janet Napolitano’s chief legal counsel opposing the ACLU in defending a Ten Commandments monument at Wesley Bolin Plaza — in and of itself make Nelson a hard-line conservative.
Interestingly, as Martin reported, Nelson’s campaign manager himself engaged in political labeling. Josh Kilroy compared the attacks to “Swift Boat politics,” a term first used to characterize accusations regarding 2004 Democratic presidential nominee Sen. John Kerry’s military service.
Labels alone provide insufficient information with which to judge a candidate. Voters should demand of candidates and their supporters to elevate the debate to be about issues and details about their qualifications and less about “gotcha” politics, with which the American people of late have grown increasingly weary and suspicious.