One summer morning, in the midst of a campaign for the Maryland House of Delegates, there arrived here a telephone call from a fringe candidate of my acquaintance who was in full-throated professional whine.
"My opponent," he cried. "He's telling people I'm a numbers runner."
I listened to this for a few seconds and then, knowing the candidate in somewhat greater detail than his public posturing, I delicately pointed out, "But you are a numbers runner."
"Well, yeah," the candidate said after a pause long enough for reflection and, if necessary, interstate flight, "but he don't have to tell people, does he?"
Well, no. This is known as "going negative." Politicians don't have to "go negative." But it helps. Sometimes, it helps win elections but, more importantly, it helps voters understand the nature of the accused, and the accuser, as they make their way to the polling booths.
And with presidential primaries today in Michigan and Arizona, and in Maryland in two weeks, and with much talk about Sen. John McCain and others giving up such "negative" tactics, let's try to clear up some confusion here: It's not the negative campaigning that's wrong. It's the negative campaigning that fails to tell the truth, that is misleading or empty or slanderous, that is the trouble.
Negative campaigning based on truth -- where's the problem? We expect candidates to lie about themselves. The least they can do is tell the truth about their opponents.
The last time he ran for governor, Parris N. Glendening raised campaign money beyond all previous counting -- and thus raised concerns that he would be beholden to all those deep pockets who backed him. Was it wrong for Glendening's opponent to point this out? Of course not.
In the race for mayor of Baltimore last summer, everybody talked about crime, and everybody was against it. Big deal. To gain a sense of perspective, and detail how we got into this awful mess, somebody had to point out the indifference, and the sluggishness, and the indecisiveness, of those running City Hall for the past 12 years.
That's not negative campaigning, it's simple truth-telling, and the one who did it best got himself elected.
In South Carolina, McCain accused Gov. George W. Bush's people of telephoning thousands of voters to tell lies about him. That's not truth-telling, it's slander on the grand scale. But then McCain compared Bush's character to Bill Clinton's, and Bush took this as the greatest character assassination imaginable. (Excuse us? Are these guys running against the current American president, or each other?) McCain promised that, unlike Bush, he would now refrain from any negative campaigning.
Leaving him, exactly, what? Issues? And how are issues to be discussed if not by examining where you stand -- and where your opponent stands? Thus, McCain, desperate for a win in Michigan today, holds himself to an unfair standard in an unnecessary bid to place himself above tactics illogically believed to be unhealthy.
As it happens, I believe George W. Bush is an empty shirt. This is not exactly a position paper, but it's a starting point. It comes from spending an afternoon around him in Southeast Baltimore last summer, during one of the sorriest excuses for a campaign stop ever witnessed, and his refusal to answer a single question from reporters. But it also comes from looking at his record.
On his own, what's this guy ever done? It's his family and well-connected friends who got him into Yale and Harvard Business School despite mediocre grades. It's those same people, plus financial backers looking to cash in, who bankrolled him in the oil business and bailed him out when he failed, who helped him buy the Texas Rangers baseball team and walk away with enormous profits, and then propped him up to become governor of Texas and candidate for president.
This is all a matter of well-documented record. Is it "negative" to point out uncomfortable truths -- or just fair game for debate about people who will oversee public policy? Is it wrong to point out that Bush has talked tough on drug traffic while refusing to discuss his own history and drugs? Is it wrong to point out that he calls himself a "compassionate" conservative while authorizing more than a hundred executions in Texas?
"Compassion" is just a word. Politicians throw words around without necessarily connecting them to actual meaning. And this is why, in the course of political campaigns, it is healthy when opponents say uncomfortable things about each other.
As long as they stick to the facts, this is not to be perceived as "negative" campaigning, or underhanded tactics. It should be seen as that priceless political commodity: the telling of truth.