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.