DEBATE: Should Congress Regulate the Use of Attack Ads in Election 2012?


Both President Barack Obama and Mitt Romney’s camps released advertisements today that could easily be considered attack ads. 

From the Obama campaign, an advertisement entitled “Understands,” put forth by pro-Obama super PAC Priorities USA Action, features a man named Joe Soptic who lost his job when the steal mill for which he worked went bankrupt after a takeover by Romney-led Bain Capital. He lost his healthcare when he lost his job, he claims, and when his wife fell ill, she was afraid to say anything because of the possible medical costs. When she finally was admitted to the hospital and diagnosed with cancer, it was too late to save her.

That’s right, this advertisement alleges that Mitt Romney’s actions at Bain Capital killed someone.

Meanwhile, Romney’s advertisement, entitled “Right Choice” and officially put forward by his campaign, criticizes President Obama’s changes to the welfare program. According to the ad, Obama is “gutting” the welfare program, eliminating the “welfare to work” requirement. While this ad may not be as terrifying as accusing someone of murder, the kicker lies in the classic Romney flip-flop: the waiver policy that Romney is criticizing is the very same “increased waiver authority” that Romney supported in 2005 as governor of Massachusetts.

The closer we get to Election Day, the more advertisements we’re going to see from both candidates and their supporters criticizing the opposite side. As long as they provide enough evidence to stay clear of libel charges, attack ads are perfectly legal, and it’s easy to understand their appeal to campaigners: attack ads hit viewers somewhere more primal than simple discussion of policy would. By appealing to morals and galvanizing viewers, attack ads make the differences between candidates seem as important as life and death — in the case of the most recent anti-Romney ad, literally.

On the other hand, if candidates focus so much on attack ads that they take the place of actual discussion of policy, it can be difficult for viewers to decide whom to support. If the differences between candidates truly are their stances on the issues, than attack ads detract from the relevant information.

Weigh In: Do attack ads detract from campaigns by shifting the focus away from debate over real issues? Should attack ads be limited, and is there a way to limit attack ads without violating freedom of speech? Or are they a perfectly natural part of every election cycle that should be left alone?