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Does Bad Behavior Turn Off Voters?

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Some of U.S. Vice President Joe Biden's reactions during his vice presidential debate. | Photo: SAUL LOEB/AFP/GettyImages
Some of U.S. Vice President Joe Biden's reactions during his vice presidential debate. | Photo: SAUL LOEB/AFP/GettyImages

Last week two debates between federal candidates made national news. The first was, of course, the Vice Presidential debate between incumbent Joe Biden and Congressman Paul Ryan. As I watched both the debate and my twitter feed a few things became clear. First, this was a much livelier debate than the first presidential debate between President Barack Obama and former Governor Mitt Romney. Second, we were going to spend a good deal of time talking about Biden's smiles, chuckles, tone, and other mannerisms.

This is another way of saying that we judge candidates on their appearances and affections all of the time. Many of us spent a good deal of time talking about the fact that in the first debate it looked like President Obama might want to be somewhere else. Substance matters, but appearance and style matter as well. But what happens when two candidates agree on most of the substance but have markedly different styles?

Well, that brings us to the second debate to capture national media coverage: the matchup between incumbent Congressmen Howard Berman and Brad Sherman. This has been a nasty race from the beginning. The two Democrats from the San Fernando Valley were drawn into the same district, thanks at least in part to the fact that an independent redistricting commission drew legislative lines for the first time in the state's history. In addition, because of the new top-two electoral system, two candidates of the same party can faceoff in the general election as long as they received the greatest number of votes. The two also share many of the same political positions.

The public has become all too accustomed to politicians behaving badly. By which I mean they call each other names, stretch the truth, and figuratively sling mud at each other. But a funny thing happened at the debate between Berman and Sherman last week, that figurative slinging of mud almost turned literal. At one point Sherman put his arm around Berman and aggressively questioned, "You want to get into this?"

Berman and the public should say "no." We most definitely do not want to get into "this" if "this" means physical altercations between political candidates. Our system of government is set up to allow for a robust, and at time contentious debate about the issues. Physical altercations are, to be charitable, counterproductive and feed into the dislike and distrust of politicians. Schoolyard squabbles have no place in political campaigns.

Jessica Levinson writes about the intersection of law and government every Monday. She is an Associate Clinical Professor at Loyola Law School. Read more of her posts here.

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