Three Cheers for Negative Campaigning

Three Cheers for Negative Campaigning

Three Cheers for Negative Campaigning

How you look at things.
Nov. 25 1999 3:30 AM

Three Cheers for Negative Campaigning

Last week, the Republican Leadership Council began running an ad that accused Steve Forbes of "tearing down his opponents." Wednesday, Forbes fired back at the RLC with his own ad: "George W. Bush says he wants a positive campaign. Then why are Bush's liberal supporters running this negative ad attacking Steve Forbes?" A Forbes press release added, "Forbes Calls on Bush To Cease 'Politics of Personal Destruction' Against Senator John McCain." Meanwhile, in the Democratic race, Bill Bradley and Al Gore denounced each other's "personal attacks" and "scare tactics." Everyone is accusing everyone else of negative campaigning, but nobody's answering the question that ought to come first: What's wrong with negative campaigning? Politicians and journalists pretend to explain this through a series of platitudes, none of which are convincing.

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1. Be nice. The RLC says it's trying to keep the GOP "civil" by pressuring Forbes to maintain a high "tenor." Its ad says Forbes needs to be taught "If he doesn't have anything nice to say, don't say anything at all." Bradley gets a similar lecture from the Washington Post, which accuses him of forsaking his "pledge of chivalry" by criticizing Gore's modest proposals for health care and gun control. But what's so great about being nice or chivalrous? Bradley thinks Gore is running on a timid platform designed to avoid political heat rather than to solve problems. Forbes thinks the same of Bush. If they're right, the worst thing they can do for the country is to refrain from pointing out these failings. (McCain is accused of getting "angry." Bradley is much nicer. When Gore claimed that Bradley's health-care plan would bust the budget, Bradley's spokeswoman answered, "Bill Bradley reserves his anger for the Americans without health insurance." Bradley might have served those Americans better by directing his anger at Gore's misrepresentations. But that would have been impolite.)

William Saletan William Saletan

Will Saletan writes about politics, science, technology, and other stuff for Slate. He’s the author of Bearing Right.

2. Stay clean. The Post asks whether Bradley's criticisms of Gore's policies belie Bradley's professed "rectitude," his "desire to be super-clean," and "his image as an above-the-fray politician." But where's the virtue in such aloofness? Why should Bush get credit for keeping his hands clean and preserving his above-the-fray image if, as Forbes alleges, he has achieved this by letting the RLC do his dirty work? And shouldn't Bradley get credit, by comparison, for striding into the fray and leveling his charges squarely at Gore?

3. Be positive. Bradley accuses Gore of offering "attacks" instead of a "positive vision," based on the calculation that it's "easier to campaign against your opponent than for yourself." Last week, former Labor Secretary Robert Reich illustrated Bradley's more "positive" style. While endorsing Bradley, Reich insisted, "I won't say anything negative about the vice president." What nonsense. Anyone who endorses Bradley is saying something negative about Gore. Since elections are comparative, the difference between campaigning "against your opponent" and campaigning "for yourself" is semantic. When Bradley says he's the candidate of big ideas and poll-free principles, he's being just as negative as Gore.

4. Don't hurt others. Journalists and wounded politicians love to equate criticism with assault. Bradley says Gore's strategy is "attack, attack, attack, attack." Forbes and the RLC decry each other's "attack ads." The New York Times says Forbes "became known as a slash-and-burn politician for his commercials that lacerated Bob Dole" in 1996. Bush, mimicking Bill Clinton, calls questions about whether he used cocaine "the politics of personal destruction." The Los Angeles Times accuses Bush's rivals of "Bush bashing" at this week's GOP debate in Arizona. A McCain adviser fears Bush will "get out the blowtorch and go after McCain." All this sounds awful, until you remember that nobody has been attacked, bashed, slashed, burned, blowtorched, lacerated, or destroyed. Forbes leveled charges about Dole's record that could be--and were--rebutted. The "bashing" Bush endured in the Arizona debate consisted largely of the observation that he had failed to show up. Clinton turned out to be guilty of the central allegation in the Lewinsky scandal, and Bush still hasn't answered the cocaine questions. The truth often hurts. It ought to be told anyway.

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5. Don't get personal. Bradley has alluded several times to the 1996 Clinton-Gore fund-raising scandal. Monday, he cited published reports that "Clinton administration Cabinet officers are being asked to arrange their travel schedules and public announcements so the vice president can finance his political campaign with taxpayer dollars when his funds run out." Rather than rebut Bradley's allegation, Gore huffed, "Personal attacks have no place in a campaign." But isn't a campaign exactly the place where Gore should be confronted if he has indeed abused his position and violated the spirit of the campaign finance laws? How can one person point out another's misdeeds without getting personal?

6. Don't throw the first punch. The New York Times thinks Bradley crossed a moral line this week when he began to criticize Gore on his own initiative rather than "in response to attacks by Gore." Bradley agrees that a candidate who has been criticized is uniquely entitled to respond in kind. Running a positive campaign, he argues, "doesn't mean I'm going to stand like this forever and let someone slap my face." But why does it matter whether Gore criticized Bradley first? This is a debate, not a fistfight. If Bradley can explain why Gore would be an inferior president, why should he have to wait to say so?

7. Don't be insensitive. Last week, Bradley began airing an ad in which a woman says: "When I was pregnant with my second child, Bill Bradley proposed a law that women be allowed to stay in the hospital for 48 hours. Thanks to Sen. Bradley, my daughter is alive today." When critics pointed out that Bradley's bill hadn't passed until after the woman's daughter was born, Bradley accused the Gore campaign of displaying "a real insensitivity" by challenging the ad. "I am appalled that people would attack a woman who obviously lived through tremendous trauma, has her views, and expressed them," said Bradley. Never mind whether the ad is true. To raise that question is to "attack a woman."

8. Don't scare people. Gore has been telling blacks and Hispanics that Bradley's health-care plan would kill Medicaid and provide no sufficient alternative. Bradley calls this a "scare tactic" and says it's "wrong" that Gore is "using race or ethnicity to try to scare people." But if Gore's assertion is true, what's wrong with conveying it to the ethnic groups most broadly affected? Gore isn't calling Bradley a racist. He's making an economic argument, which Bradley can rebut and has rebutted. The "scare tactic" charge, which implies that Gore is using fear and rhetoric to bypass rational scrutiny, is itself a scare tactic.

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9. Don't be divisive. Bradley accuses Gore of "poisoning the atmosphere" with "divisiveness." "I believe the public wants solutions that work, not attacks that divide," says Bradley. Similarly, Bush boasts that he's "a uniter, not a divider," while the RLC complains that Forbes, by criticizing Dole in 1996, caused "fighting within the Republican Party that was divisive and not inclusive." Imagine that--fighting and divisiveness in an election. What's wrong with informing certain segments of the electorate that your opponent is using the feel-good rhetoric of "solutions" to pull a fast one at their expense? If you're lying, shame on you. But if you're telling the truth, why does it matter that your message is divisive?

10. Don't hurt your party. The RLC ad says Forbes "hurt the Republican Party" in 1996 and will "help the Democrats" in 2000 by criticizing his GOP rivals. Republican National Committee Chairman Jim Nicholson vows to "blow the whistle on candidates" who "tear down other Republicans." Meanwhile, Bradley is taking heat for questioning Gore's campaign-finance practices. In the good old days, says the Post, Bradley "was more restrained," declining "to comment on the Clinton administration's fund-raising behavior." But why should Bradley shut up about the Clinton-Gore fund-raising scandal? And why should Forbes shut up about what he regards as a Republican betrayal of conservatism? Does loyalty to party supersede loyalty to country?

11. Don't alienate voters. Bradley frets that Gore's attacks on his health-care plan will "alienate the public" and foster skepticism toward big programs. NOW President Patricia Ireland warns the candidates that "negative campaigning depresses the women's vote." On the bright side, Forbes' campaign manager says this year Forbes is "much less likely" to "run the same kind of negative spots that he did against Dole," because "four years ago he was a message candidate. Now he believes he can be president." But what's wrong with "alienating" voters from bad programs and bad candidates? And isn't it nobler to deliver a depressingly true "message" than to shade the truth so you can get elected?

12. Don't practice politics as usual. Just as Forbes accused Dole of playing sneaky "Washington politics" in 1996, Bradley now castigates Gore for resorting to the typical "Washington politics" of slash and burn. Gore is delighted to reciprocate. "There goes Sen. Bradley again, acting like a typical politician, launching negative attacks on Al Gore," a Gore spokesman crowed last week. How does the fact that such attacks are "typical" clarify whether Gore is right about Bradley or vice versa? Never mind. All you need to know is that negative campaigning is the oldest trick in the book. And the next oldest trick, if you can't answer the charge, is to whine about negative campaigning.