It’s October, and as the leaves begin to turn, the nights start to cool, and Halloween and November draw closer, the political ads become more and more nightmarish.
For the last week or so, for example, Democrat Roy Barnes has been banging on his Republican opponent, Nathan Deal, about a bill that Deal sponsored in the state Senate almost 20 years ago.
According to Barnes, the bill would have seriously weakened the rape shield law in Georgia that protects victims from being hauled into the witness stand and forced to recount their sexual histories. According to Deal, the bill would have brought Georgia law into line with the federal government’s tough rape shield law and strengthened it against legal challenge.
So who’s right? Well, back in 1991, opposition to Deal’s proposed change in state law snowballed so quickly, particularly among women’s groups, that nobody — including Deal — was willing to stand in front of it and try to stop it. He was forced to rewrite the legislation.
That doesn’t mean he was wrong as a question of law, or that he really was trying to undercut protection for rape victims, as Barnes now alleges. I was covering the state Legislature pretty intensely back then, and my admittedly vague recollection is that knowledgeable, well-intentioned lawyers were saying at the time that the changes proposed by Deal would have been fine. But they were saying it quietly, off the record, because public opinion had coalesced so powerfully on the other side and nobody wanted to get tagged as being pro-rapist. That happens sometimes; good legislation gets a bad rep, and everyone decides that it’s not worth the political capital needed to rescue it.
Fast forward almost two decades, to a hard-fought gubernatorial campaign in which the women’s vote might prove decisive. Under the circumstances, it was probably inevitable that Barnes would resurrect the issue. Again, I think Deal is probably right, now as he was back then, but Barnes at the very least has what you might call “a lawyer’s case,” with enough facts and statements on his side to put forth a plausible argument. In politics, that’s more than enough.
But a campaign can choose to make its case on such an issue responsibly, or irresponsibly. As the images here demonstrate, the Barnes campaign has taken the second course, the irresponsible course. When I saw them last night popping up on my computer, I was honestly offended and began taking them as screen grabs.
Good ads are supposed to make an impact, and this one surely does. But it does so by sensationalizing rape and by implicating Deal as — at the very least — a co-conspirator in sexual assault. It provokes revulsion and horror, and it attempts to pin that revulsion and horror on a candidate for public office. Regardless of the merits of the legal debate that inspired it, the ad is grossly unfair. It exploits rape and its victims for political gain.
I’ve documented my problems with Deal’s candidacy, and won’t reiterate them here. It’s also true that Barnes himself has been the target of some brutal advertising, most notably the King Rat ads of eight years ago, which he clearly has neither forgotten nor forgiven.
But there ought to be some places you won’t go, some things you won’t do. This was one of them, and I very much hope there aren’t more to come, from either side.