Former Gov. Jeb Bush recently predicted the 2012 presidential campaign will be the nastiest ever.
Bush's campaigns for governor were not horribly negative, but he knows nasty. He's the son of the president whose supporters made us familiar with Willie Horton, and the brother of the president whose allies added the word "swiftboat" to America's political lexicon.
The aggressive tactics in both Bush presidential campaigns emanated not from the candidates or the Republican Party, but from the kind of independent campaign committees we saw smearing GOP candidates in the primary this year.
Freed by two Supreme Court rulings -- an old one that said money is a form of speech and a comparatively new one that said corporate interests can spend as much as they please to praise or attack candidates -- these autonomous advocacy organizations are likely to finance unprecedented sludge-fests for both sides.
Of course, it's possible they could take the high road with positive ads about issues such as health care, Social Security, job-creation, taxes and war. Yeah, right.
Forget truth. You can't legally stop them from lying in political advertisements. Libel and slander laws don't apply to political speech and, alas, former Georgia Sen. Zell Miller's 2004 suggestion that we bring back dueling never quite caught on.
Fortunately, there are three things voters can do to inoculate themselves against the hype about to come.
First, don't believe any of it. Whether the message is nice or nasty, remember that either the candidates or some wealthy interests supporting them are spending a lot of money to bring that information to you. Somebody really wants you to think of the candidate, or an issue, in a certain way. You know what they say about something that sounds too good to be true? Well, the same goes for anything that sounds too bad.
Second, do a little research of your own. Don't get your information from TV ads, Tweets or Facebook postings put out by either side. There are independent, non-partisan, reliable fact-checking Internet sites. There's also a lot of garbage. Check things out as you would before buying a car or changing jobs.
Third, hold the candidates personally responsible for what is said on their behalf. It's too easy for candidates to keep clean hands and let the "527s" or "Super PACs" sling the mud. We shouldn't let them get away with it.
If Obama or Romney benefits from some wild, outrageous smear done by an independent organization, he owns it. Unless he calls a news conference to disassociate himself, the attack belongs to whichever campaign wants you to believe it.
We recently saw an encouraging pre-emptive strike in this direction. An outside organization planned to attack Obama with advertisements dredging up the 2008 furor over the Rev. Jeremiah Wright, the president's former pastor in Chicago. Although his campaign was not technically involved in the plan, Romney publicly disassociated himself from it.
Maybe the Romney forces engineered the whole thing, to remind everybody of Wright's past statements while making the Republican nominee-to-be look virtuous for repudiating it. But it sets a good precedent for what portends to be an ugly presidential campaign.
Bill Cotterell, retired senior writer for the Tallahassee Democrat, has covered Florida government and politics since 1969. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org
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