Carly Fiorina, the Republican candidate for Senate in California, released a television ad on Thursday attacking her opponent, Dem Sen. Barbara Boxer, as a symbol of "Washington arrogance." The ad focuses entirely on an incident in June 2009, when Boxer, at a congressional hearing, asked a brigadier general who was testifying to do her "a favor" and refer to her as "Senator" instead of "ma'am." This, apparently, is a totally outrageous request. God forbid that a woman politely ask to be addressed in a way she prefers. People flipped out. As blogger Melissa McEwan pointed out at the time, videos of the exchange and articles about it were deluged with comments referring to Boxer as "Senator C***face" and "every other variation on 'Senator + Misogynist Slur,'" you can think of.
Here's the thing, though: even if you were sort of annoyed by Boxer's request, who does it hurt? You don't even have to know the reason why Boxer doesn't want to be called ma'am. It could be that she worried that not using her title was a form of deliberate disrespect. (It probably wasn't, but who cares?) It could be, as blogger Echidne posited, that she "has had plenty of experiences of sitting in a room with other dignitaries, hearing how they are called by their last names while she's called Barbara," and that annoyed her. It could be that she just likes the sound of the word "senator." Maybe she is just "arrogant," as Fiorina charges. The real question is: who cares? The ad provides no evidence that wanting to be called "senator" has any bearing on Barbara Boxer's ability to do her job, or to make effective public policy. It's just a content-free personality based attack, and should be treated as such. This is the kind of discourse that makes us all dumber.
Boxer, meanwhile, has recently released an attack ad of her own. The Boxer ad, in contrast to Fiorina's, focuses on actual issues—on Fiorina's actual, real-life record of accomplishments and failings. It's not very nice, but at least it is a starting point for a conversation about policy:
As it turns out, you can say a lot of really harsh things about Carly Fiorina in an attack ad without straying from the facts. Boxer's ad was rated "mostly true" by PolitiFact.com (they quibbled a bit with how Boxer's ad calculated that Fiorina "tripled" her salary). And the attack ad didn't even mention that Fiorina was once ranked as one of the worst CEOs of all time.
Fiorina doesn't seem to want to focus on issues and records—and Boxer does. The contrast between these two ads is illuminating, but in some ways it's unsurprising. Boxer is a very liberal senator. To a self-proclaimed tea partier like Fiorina, Boxer's record should offer any number of tempting targets for criticism. But California is a liberal state. It's going to be hard to attack Boxer's policies from the right and still win. What's Fiorina going to do—come out as proudly in favor of paying CEOs millions of dollars to ship jobs to China?
It's good for voters to learn more about the candidates in this race—their records and their issue positions. But on balance, a focus on substance will help Boxer more. After all, if you were running against Carly Fiorina, who laid off tens of thousands of workers when she ran HP—who "nearly destroyed" the company—you'd want voters to focus on her record, too. Expect more of the same from both candidates.