Even if you buy Edsall’s assumption that the Obama campaign’s anti-Romney ads are designed to convince non-college educated white voters who won’t support the incumbent to give Romney a pass as well, it is fundamentally wrong to treat such efforts as equivalent to utilizing the power of government to bar voters from the polls altogether. Voters hypothetically convinced by the Obama ads to “stay home” in the presidential contest are perfectly free to skip that ballot line and vote their preferences for other offices, just as they are perfectly free to ignore both presidential campaigns’ attack ads and make a “hard choice” between two candidates they aren’t crazy about. Lumping negative ads together with voter disenfrancisement under the rubric of “vote suppression” legitimizes the latter as a campaign tactic rather than what it actually is: an assault on the exercise of fundamental democratic rights.First of all, I completely agree with Kilgore's main point. Trying to convince voters to do something is just fundamentally difference from disenfranchising them; the one is unquestionably and completely legitimate politics, while the other is, well, difficult.
That is, I have to admit that I am somewhat ambivalent about the last bit I quoted from Kilgore. I do find what the Republicans have been doing appalling. And yet, when I think about it, I find that the case against it as a legitimate "campaign tactic" is harder to make than one might suspect.
Here's the problem: I am certain that full democracy does depend on every citizen having the vote; more broadly, it depends on every citizen having an opportunity to amass and use politically relevant resources, and the vote is essentially a gateway resource. On the other hand, politicians and parties are going to legitimately compete over votes, and we expect them to use whatever they have to do so. I'm tempted to say that just because in the US right now we happen to have one party which generally wants high turnout and another which wants low turnout, we should naturally expect one party to favor policies which make voting harder, and that's just how it goes. I do feel that way about other ground rules type policies which might have partisan effects, whether it's redistricting or campaign finance. For example, I see nothing at all wrong with a majority party conducting a partisan gerrymander. That's just politics. I continue to believe that a "good government" view that we can have neutral ground rules and only compete on policy is wrong in all sorts of ways (among other things, because there's no neutral point from which to set those rules, because in a healthy politics as much as possible should be able to be contested if people do in fact disagree).
And yet...voting feels different, doesn't it? I guess it goes back to what I said above: voting really is the gateway resource. Even, perhaps, more so than speech. Surely, a polity which limits the franchise to only some citizens is (unless there's a damn good reason) going to be to that extent an imperfect or incomplete democracy. Or, if you prefer blunt interpretations, undemocratic at least to that extent. And so it's hard to say that a party's actions are legitimate in a democracy if they tend to make that nation undemocratic.
But as I said, I think it's a less clear-cut case than some might think.
What's not difficult at all, however, is the main case that Kilgore makes. Edsall could have made an interesting argument against negative ads by pointing out the potential effects and noting the surface similarity to GOP voter suppression...but what he actually wrote is basically calling those things one and the same, that's just not the case. And so: nice catch!