Some Positive Thoughts About Negative Campaigning

Negative campaigning has a bad reputation, routinely being disparaged as juvenile taunting that serves only to degrade public discourse. A New York Times headline the other day noted "Bickering and Negative Ads in Countdown to Caucuses," as though these were the moral equivalent of an old married couple grousing about that mess in the kitchen.

Even devoted practitioners feel the duty to deplore negative campaigning. After commissioning an ad accusing Mitt Romney of grievous departures from conservative wisdom, Mike Huckabee was so remorseful that he refused to run it—though he managed to disseminate his charges in a news conference where he sorrowfully screened the spot for the news media. Explaining his newfound magnanimity, Huckabee asserted, "It's never too late to do the right thing."

But what was so terrible about the ad? It merely said that as governor of Massachusetts, Romney raised taxes, left a budget deficit, provided abortion coverage in his universal health care program, and failed to carry out a single execution—all of which appear to be grounded in fact, and any of which a few voters would find interesting.

The spot thus passes the only two tests voters should apply to any campaign attack: Is it true, and is it important? Accusing Romney of having devil's horns would be unacceptable because, though significant, it's not true. Accusing him of owning too many sweaters, though true, would be over the line because it doesn't matter.

It would be nice if politicians were all saintly figures who invariably do the right thing. Since they are not—and since Americans often disagree on what constitutes the right thing—negative campaigning serves the helpful function of illuminating facts that a) people are likely to care about and b) the targets would prefer we didn't know. In fact, if it weren't for attacks on the air and on the stump, our campaigns might have all the nutritional content of a Coke Zero.

What would we glean about the current candidates from watching only their own positive ads and presentations? That Hillary Clinton has unmatched experience in government and is a good listener to boot. That John Edwards is tireless in fighting for You. That Mitt Romney loves his highly photogenic family. That John McCain is a common-sense conservative.

That Mike Huckabee is unabashedly in favor of Christmas. That Rudy Giuliani will kill terrorists with his bare hands. That Barack Obama's serene wisdom would make Gandhi look like Bill O'Reilly.

Compare those blinding revelations with what we know about the same candidates from unflattering portrayals offered by their opponents and other uncharitable souls: Clinton's experience is greatly exaggerated. As a state senator, Obama's Zen-like approach to divisive legislation often led him to vote neither "yes" nor "no" but "present."

Giuliani has a history of support for gun control and abortion rights. Huckabee has changed his position on illegal immigration. Edwards has changed his position on the Iraq war. Romney has changed his position on everything.

Any of these particular discoveries may strike you as good, bad or irrelevant. But the only reason they get attention is that they furnish some voters with information that will influence their vote.

I don't want to be entirely positive about negativity. Political attacks can also be nasty, unfair or even outrageously false. When a top Clinton campaign official wondered if Obama might have been a drug dealer in his youth, the suggestion was all three. But rather than damaging Obama, the claim backfired, forcing the aide to resign.

That episode goes to show something else good about even the most indefensible attacks: They often tell more about the attacker than the attackee. The smear of Obama reminded some people of Clinton's pattern of ruthlessness toward her enemies—a pattern at odds with the image of quiet strength and personal warmth she has worked so hard to cultivate.

When Huckabee asked whether Mormons (such as Romney) really believe that Satan is the brother of Jesus, he did voters a similar service. Mormons say this is a mischaracterization, and I'm not qualified to address questions of theology. But true or false, it's about as relevant to a candidate's fitness for office as whether he believes in purgatory. And by raising it, Huckabee made himself sound like he should be running for pastor, not president.

Thomas Jefferson once said that he would prefer newspapers without a government to a government without newspapers. Given a choice between politics with no negative campaigning and politics with only negative campaigning, I suspect he would prefer the latter.

COPYRIGHT 2008 CREATORS SYNDICATE, INC.

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  • Rev Toast||

    For what it's worth, the LDS's extra-Biblical documents involving the devil are strongly influenced by Paradise Lost (it was a popular text, for some reason, in early 19th century New England churches). An interesting thread of research is how the Mormons view Christ, which is as "the firstborn of the Father in the spirit," as opposed to trinitarianism professed by most Christian churches in America. This leads to the conclusion that Christ is one of the "spirit" creatures of the Father, which is what (per Milton and Mormons) Lucifer was as well. Here's a thorough piece on the subject (via this I found with Google).

  • Guy Montag||

    I really can't think of a negative Iowa ad. How negative could "Iowa, just like southern Canada" be? Or "Iowa, Illinois' western trailer park"?

  • ||

    Iowa. Corn. No Porn.

  • iowan||

    Iowa. Corn. No Porn.

    Not exactly true. There is a corn field on the other side of my property line, and Dish Network make porn available with a single push of a button.

  • Bingo||

    What Would Jesus Do?

  • ||

    I am also a supportter of truthful, relevant attack ads. If the truth hurts, don't blame the messenger. I would like to see politicians punished in the voting booth for running false, deceptive attack ads, but that is asking for too much of the electorate.

  • economist||

    Negative ads are what make the wholly (excepting DR. Paul)uninspiring candidates tolerably interesting. I don't want to listen to how Hillary Clinton plans to give many away and about her "more than the country can afford" ideas. I want to hear about how she and Bill used to eat children in the light cast by Jack-o-lanterns in the Arkansas governors mansion on Halloween. Much more entertaining.

  • economist||

    Slight clarification necessary. In line2 "many" should be "money". Sorry for the typo.

  • stuartl||

    While truthful attack ads are a good thing, sadly the lying ones can be very effective. Even once people learn that something they've heard is false, they tend to return to believing it. In fact, saying a negative, such as "My opponent does not eat babies," will get a certain number of people to believe that they do eat babies.

    Obama has been pretty good at dodging the Clinton muck by reminding people that the Clinton's have a history of not telling the truth, instead of denying the stories.

  • ||

    Its weird that negative advertising only works in politics.

    I can't see a negative McDonalds ad trashing Burger king, or Toyota trashing Honda being very effective in selling their products.

  • stuartl||

    Cesar, negative ads are more effective at stopping something. The goal is to stop a voter from voting for a candidate. Keep Obama's base away from the polls.

    If you are trying to sell something, you need to go with a positive spin, "Honda's quality is better" not "Toyota's quality is low." You do not want stop someone from buying any car at all.

  • ||

    Everyone likes attack adds that point out the truth about candidates even when the truth is marginal. The idea that "amerika doesn't like attack adds" is silly. Campaigns are dull as dirt without them.

  • ||

    cesar, votes are different than cars. with votes, it's vote share not total votes.

  • R C Dean||

    Slight clarification necessary. In line2 "many" should be "money". Sorry for the typo.

    As with so many typos, I kind of liked the unintentionally revealing original.

  • Guy Montag||

    Who made that attack ad against Dr. Paul again? The one with orderly Ellis Island immigration vs. the disorderly river-crossing illegal immigration.

  • Shane||

    I can't see a negative McDonalds ad trashing Burger king, or Toyota trashing Honda being very effective in selling their products.

    What about the MAC vs PC commercials? Hendrix choosing Pepsi over Coke? Burger King placing competitors sandwiches in the meal bags instead of Whoppers and taping their customers reactions("i hate mcdonalds, i want my whopper")? After watching that BurgerKing spot i actually started thinking " you know what, i hate big macs too, whoppers are flame-broiled..." Competetion isn't supposed to be rosy, it's supposed to empasis the difference and you can't do that without going "negative" at least a bit. In explaining why and how your product/candidate is better than the other products/candidates sometimes you have to actually show what the other product/candidates lack(McDonalds doesnt have flame-broiled goodness/Huckabee doesn't have a history of consistent fiscal conservatism). It's a good thing.As long as your honest in the contrast.

  • Shane||

    For the record i like the Big Mac sauce, but Whopper just has a better patty, and tomato slices.

  • ||

    For the record i like the Big Mac sauce, but Whopper just has a better patty, and tomato slices.

    For the record, the best burgers are found at local bars. Anywhere I've been in America.

  • Shane||

    For the record, the best burgers are found at local bars. Anywhere I've been in America.

    Good to know, next time i'm on a 30 min lunch break or am picking up dinner for 4 on my way home, i'll call the hundreds of local bars in my city and see what their menus offer.

    Besides, if we're talking about BEST burgers(i was just comparing 2 well known coporate burgers) then look no further than my backyard grill. the Super Shane Deluxe Mac Jack-in-Whopper. it has bbq sauce and jalepeno peppers.

  • economist||

    Also, they got those Subway commercials where they talk about how bad McD and BK food is for you. Like anyone cares.

  • ||

    "For the record, the best burgers are found at local bars. Anywhere I've been in America."

    In New Orleans' Warehouse District, there's a bar call Lucy which has a good hamburger called "the juicy Lucy".

  • ||

    In New Orleans' Warehouse District, there's a bar call Lucy which has a good hamburger called "the juicy Lucy".

    This could be homerism, but I was taught that the Juicy Lucy originated at Matt's Bar in South Minneapolis in 1954.

  • ||

    I like the way Barack thinks!

    BTW, they are frickim awesome.

  • Rhywun||

    Wendy's is the best of the big three. But otherwise yeah, like so many things, you get what you pay for, and bar burger (or a gourmet chain burger) costs a lot more than a Big Mac, Whopper, or Wendy's burger.

  • LarryA||

    And by raising it, Huckabee made himself sound like he should be running for pastor, not president.

    He is.

  • ce||

    I've always liked negative ads - mainly because, in my state, they're the only source of real information. As stated in the article, the positive ads are often vague posturing about fighting for working families and other blah.

    Also, negative ads have made me vote for someone before. I remember one ad where a legislator was attacked for voting down some ridiculous spending bill that would have "helped our children," so it actually brought the attack victim some support from me.

  • Otter||

    I've learned lots of important stuff from attack ads.

  • D||

    Funny, but Mexico just passed a major electoral reform package that outlaws negative campaigning. A negative campaign comparing upstart lefty Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador with Venezuelan firebrand Hugo Chavez kneecapped an irresponsible populist campaign - sparing the country a rerun of the calamitous 1970s economic disasters.

    Viva progaganda negra!

  • ||

    A vote for Ron Paul is a vote for World tyranny, a vote against job stealing foreigners, and a promise to statist dictators arround the world that we won't come after you for starting another holocost, because we are no longer the world's police.

    All racist Statists must vote for RON PAUL

  • ||

    I think Chapman is wrong. Political ads are almost always literally true. They are also simultaneously almost always deceptive. Most ads are attempting to tell a half-truth, but due to limited time in a 30 second spot, only get about a quarter-truth out. What the listener actually hears is probably true in a strict literal sense but contains no information of value.

    For example, imagine a politician voted for a bill that replaced a sales tax with an income tax in a revenue-neutral manner. You can be 100% certain in the next election cycle that his opponent will claim that he voted to increase income taxes without mentioning the equal and opposite tax cut it was tethered to. While the statement is literally true, it is both incomplete and implies something that is not true.

    Ads are so full of this baloney it makes me sick. They are totally worthless and I wish there was a way to get rid of them.

  • economist||

    Statist
    I really can't tell what you are. Are you a neocon, a leftist, or just a bitter old looney?

    Chad,
    Negative campaign ads, despite often containing only half-truths, nonetheless have more relevant information in them than the so-called "positive" ads. Also, in the example you cited, the fact that the candidate passed an income tax might be more important than their repeal of a sales tax. You see, some of us actually think that it's more rational to tax consumption rather than production. As long as they don't tax certain items, such as food, shelter, and healthcare I wouldn't complain about replacing our income tax with a sales tax. That said, I do NOT support Huckabee, as any sales tax would probably be in addition to our current income tax.

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