Regular readers of Daylight Atheism may recall how this site became involved in the U.S. Senate race in North Carolina last October. Trailing in the polls and running low on money, Republican senator Elizabeth Dole quoted Daylight Atheism in anti-atheist smear ads in a last-ditch attack aimed at her Democratic challenger Kay Hagan. Thankfully, Dole’s brazen appeal to bigotry was an utter failure, and Election Day saw her defeated and Hagan victorious.
Now Dole’s campaign manager, Marty Ryall, has written a post-mortem of the campaign and the infamous “Godless” ad. You would think that a decent and honorable person would express contrition over making such a shameless play for the bigot vote, that they would feel remorse for allowing desperation to drive them to such a low. But if you thought any of those things were true in this case, you don’t know the modern Republican party.
Far from feeling regret, Ryall defends the Dole campaign’s decision to air the ad. He acknowledges that it was risky and that he might have designed it somewhat differently if he’d had the chance to do it over, but he insists that the basic strategy was sound:
We had polled the issue in mid-September and found that it tested very well among the key groups that we needed to win. We needed to raise intensity among Republican voters, as well as shift the focus of Independents and conservative Democrats from our negatives to Kay Hagan in an unfavorable way. We needed something that had some shock value and would also generate an earned media component — and that was the “Godless” issue.
Ryall doesn’t regret the ad because it contained claims that were blatant lies (atheists want to “eliminate the Christmas holiday”), or because he now realizes it’s wrong for politicians to run campaigns by appealing to prejudice, or even because atheists proved to be a more influential political constituency than they had counted on. No, the only thing Marty Ryall says he regrets is not running the ad sooner!
I would argue that had we run the ad sooner, and without the voice at the end, it would have been closer. However, that is all hindsight.
It’s clear that the Dole campaign, and the Republican party in general, have learned nothing whatsoever. Ryall attributes Elizabeth Dole’s loss solely to the increased Democratic turnout, but never stops to consider what drove that turnout in the first place. Yes, the Obama campaign invested a lot of effort in getting voters to the polls, but the whole reason why that approach was so successful was that so many voters were fed up with the state of the country and willing to vote for a change of course. And why was that sentiment so widespread?
A look back at the eight years of the Bush presidency would readily reveal the answer to that question. The Republicans who were in power throughout most of that time, when they weren’t violating Constitutional rights or waging preemptive wars at staggering cost, spent most of their time stoking the flames of the culture wars: demonizing their political adversaries, inflaming their base with shrill invective, cramming fundamentalist Christianity down the populace’s throats, and churning out a ceaseless drumbeat of appeals to prejudice, hatred, and fear. They did all these things at the expense of governing, and the American republic suffered for it. Small wonder that American voters were sick and tired of their constant demagoguery, and ready to vote for candidates who could deliver meaningful solutions to actual important issues.
Ryall’s article demonstrates the precise attitude that laid low Elizabeth Dole and so many other Republicans: that their fault wasn’t in their philosophy, only in its execution. If only we’d worked a little harder at slandering atheists, he claims, we’d have won. I think the fact that they worked so hard at slandering atheists in the first place says a lot about their misguided priorities, and their defeat can be directly attributed to their failure to understand that.