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Can't stop negative ads


BILL BRADLEY complained after the New Hampshire primary, "Attack, attack, attack, every day; the people are fed up with it." That has become the consensus: the people do not like negativism in political campaigns, so for sheer practicality's sake, candidates should avoid it.

The problem is that all negativism in political battles cannot, and should not, be avoided. In fact, the best evidence is that while people may say they don't like it, reasonable, negative campaigning can be effective as well as ethical.

Moreover, the elimination of negative campaigning may not even be possible. George W. Bush promised to change "the tone" of American politics, but now he is accused by Vice President Al Gore's campaign of violating that promise with a humorous or mean-spirited (depending on which side you ask) ad campaign questioning Mr. Gore's credibility.

Another recent controversy surrounding "negative campaigning" involves a Republican commercial which highlighted excerpts from a 6-year-old interview in which Mr. Gore says that President Clinton never lied in his career. The ad implies that Mr. Gore was denying that Mr. Clinton had lied about Monica Lewinsky, when in reality Mr. Gore's comments were made years before the Lewinsky affair in another context,

Governor Bush personally ordered the dropping of the ad; he was correct in doing so, not because it was negative, but because it was misleading.

The polls may indicate that the public abhors negative campaigning, but the evidence is that people are turned off primarily by unfair and false campaigning; in other words, much negative campaigning works:

The senior George Bush's negative 1988 campaign against little-known Michael Dukakis and his alleged support for furlough programs which released the likes of Willie Horton, a convicted murderer who had raped a woman and stabbed a man while on furlough, was very effective, despite complaints by some who decried the attacks as the "dirtiest" in the modern era of campaigning.

There are basic rhetorical rules regarding negative campaigning's effectiveness. When conducted against an incumbent and/or a person whose image is very stable, it is likely to be ineffective.

For example, no campaigning in 1984 relating to Ronald Reagan's intelligence was going to substantially affect his support. But for Mr. Gore, who is not an incumbent president and whose image is not overly stable, George Bush's criticisms have the potential of "running up his negatives."

Let's dismiss the "absolutists" who argue that negative campaigning is unnecessary in politics. There is no way for a challenger, particularly if he or she is not well known, to campaign against an incumbent or well-known candidate without indicating that the challenger would make a better office-holder than the opponent.

To do so may require an articulation of what the individual would do in office, but it also requires an accounting of why the opponent is not a very good choice. What is more precedented -- and perfectly appropriate -- than criticism of an incumbent's policies? What could be a more proper campaign theme than to maintain that if the challenger were in office, he or she would no longer do what the incumbent has been doing?

Was it unethical for Mr. Reagan to ask people if they were better off after four years of Jimmy Carter's policies? How about when Vice President George Bush indicated that he thought Mr. Dukakis would weaken America's military strength? Or Bob Dole's supporters asking about the moral integrity of Bill Clinton?

Finally, in the current presidential campaign, should the attacks on Mr. Gore's "invention" of the Internet and/or misrepresentations of the past and Governor Bush's lack of specificity on the issues properly be condemned as "negative campaigning"?

The threshold for labeling a campaign as "negative" has plunged. Abe Lincoln was called "Ignoramus Abe," a robber, swindler and scoundrel, and those were just the insults from the North. The Connecticut Courant, a pro-Federalist newspaper, viciously attacked Thomas Jefferson and warned that, if elected, murder and robbery "will be openly taught and practiced." Opponents of Andrew Jackson circulated papers that described the "Bloody Deeds of General Jackson."

Today, if someone suggests that George W. Bush is not very bright, he or she is criticized for engaging in "negative campaigning."

Negative campaigning will always be with us, and properly so, since it constitutes half of the "I'm-good-and-better-than-my-opponent" claim. The only ethical issues are whether such campaigning is factually true, fairly presented and in good taste. The only practical issue is whether it will work.

Richard E. Vatz teaches political rhetoric at Towson University. Lee S. Weinberg, a lawyer, is associate professor in the Graduate School of Public and International Affairs at the University of Pittsburgh.

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