Parties get equal-time indignation
Sunday, August 16, 1998

Politics is sometimes, alas, the search for the lowest common denominator. People who call themselves political consultants and who make a living crafting "messages" for candidates want more than anything else to know just how dumb you can be.

You probably don't feel dumb. You can read and write and hold intelligent conversations. You can tie your shoes, remember your PIN code, balance your checkbook.

But apparently there are those in the world of politics who believe you are just dumb enough not to know the difference between a candidate for governor and a governor.

So far, in the Ohio governor's debate, the only issue that has been debated fully and frankly in public is tag lines on TV commercials. The campaign of Bob Taft, the Republican candidate for governor, produced a TV commercial that had absolutely no sound whatsoever; just pretty pictures of Mr. Taft in various classrooms, beaming as children worked on computers, solved math problems, took their spelling tests.

The message was that Bob Taft is in favor of education -- as opposed to all of those other candidates for public office out there, who run on platforms promoting illiteracy and ignorance.

It was a charming piece of political cotton candy, which said nothing and revealed less; and the only significant part of the 60-second spot was the fact that the words Bob Taft Governor flashed on the screen at the end. Later, the Taft campaign came out with a talkie version of the ad where the candidate actually spoke two complete, grammatical sentences.

But the tag line at the end caused an indignant Ohio Democratic Party chairman, David Leland, to march to the Ohio Elections Commission to make a formal complaint claiming the ad was misleading, that it tried to convince viewers that Mr. Taft was governor. Ohio election law bans candidates from using "the title of an office not currently held by the candidate in a manner that implies the candidate does currently hold that office."

The Ohio Elections Commission decided that there was probable cause to believe that the law had been broken; a hearing into the matter has been scheduled for early September.

The Ohio Republican Party went into its so's-your-old-man mode and dug out a TV ad that Democratic gubernatorial candidate Lee Fisher's campaign ran during the primary election season. This one -- which equalled the Taft ad for sheer sappiness, showing the candidate teaching his daughter how to ride a bike -- ended with this tag line: Lee Fisher. Governor.

Well, he's not governor either.

So Ohio GOP chairman Bob Bennett filed his own complaint, and railed over the outrageous behavior of the Democrats.

Neither of them had any business implying that he is already governor of Ohio. And both ought to know better.

Mr. Taft, after all, already has a government job -- he is secretary of state, the chief elections officer of Ohio; and presumably he is familiar with the rules and regulations of running political campaigns. The Democrats can, and will, make much hay out of an apparent violation of the election laws he is sworn to uphold.

But Mr. Fisher is no babe in the woods when it comes to politics. He is the former attorney general of the state of Ohio and the veteran of many a political campaign. Chances are, he knows what the law says.

Political media consultants, when they craft ads like this, know exactly what they are doing when they use ambiguous phrases like "Bob Taft (or Lee Fisher), Governor." If the intent is not to make you think this candidate is an incumbent, it is at least there to plant the idea that he is capable of having such a lofty title.

In this case, what will likely happen is that the Ohio Elections Commission will tell both campaigns to knock it off and quit pretending to be something they are not.

Howard Wilkinson's politics column appears on Sundays. He can be reached at 768-8388; or by e-mail: