This is a favorite topic of Cindi Scoppe’s; let me see if I can beat her to the punch in saying it in this cycle…
There is nothing wrong with negative campaigning. Not a thing in the world. In fact, if there’s something wrong with your opponent that the voters ought to know in making their choice, and there’s a reasonable chance they don’t know it, you do them a disservice by not telling them.
Something that used to drive me nuts in endorsement interviews is when I’d begin the process knowing little about either candidate, and I’d ask one of them to compare and contrast himself and his opponent. Sometimes, the question was as simple and innocent as, “I haven’t met your opponent yet. What can you tell me about him?” The candidate would get all lofty and self-righteous and say, “I’m not going to talk about my opponent.” My reaction to that was, well, then, why are you here? There have to be reasons why I should endorse you and not the other guy; if you’re not going to help me in discovering what they might be, then you’re wasting your time and, closer to my heart, my time….
What sets me off on this minor tirade is that about an ago in my car, I heard a discussion on NPR about negative campaigning. A caller said he had worked in a campaign, and complained that people seemed unable to distinguish between telling what’s wrong with one’s opponent and “negative campaigning.” Well, pal, there’s a reason they can’t tell the difference — there is no difference, if language means anything. Criticizing your opponent is being negative. Not that there’s anything wrong with that.
What’s wrong is misleading, unfair, irrelevant, out-of-context campaigning, or campaigning that plays on the emotions of the electorate, rather than their reason, in a way that is detrimental to one’s opponent’s electoral chances.
For instance… one of the examples mentioned during the radio program was the Willie Horton ad. What was wrong with that? Well, a couple of things. One, it’s ridiculous to try to condemn a governor because one person let out of jail in a program he supervised committed a terrible crime. If that’s your standard, then we would never, ever let anyone out of prison again, given the recidivism rates.
But of course, that wasn’t what was really wrong with that ad. What was really wrong was that everyone involved knew that what was really going on here was an appeal to race — saying Dukakis is soft on those people, and don’t you know you can’t give ’em an inch! The picture said it all. It was such easily understood cultural shorthand. It was the very archetype of the Dangerous Black Criminal. Eddie Murphy mocked this iconic visage, so frightening to the white bourgeoisie, in the skit in which his character, Tyrone Greene, recited his poem, “Images.” (You know, the one with the refrain, “Kill my landlord.”)
To bring it to the present day, acceptable negative campaigning is for Mitt Romney to “blame” the president for Obamacare, and make it clear that he would try to appeal it. What’s not acceptable is repeatedly lying in saying that the president has tried to do away with welfare-to-work requirements (a false charge that employs another racial stereotype, by the way — the black president who wants to undo welfare reform).
Similarly it’s perfectly fine for Obama to accuse the opposing ticket of favoring tax cuts that he opposes (although I could do without the “for the rich” mantra; it gets old). What’s unfair is to blame him for that woman dying.
Sometimes, in my more quixotic and masochistic moments, I think about running for office. I think about, just as an example, running against Joe Wilson for Congress (I think of that because I have no major problems with how my county councilman or state legislators represent me). And I imagine how the campaign would go. And I’ll tell you right now, I’d say negative things (how could any writer of my blog doubt it?).
But I’d be fair. The way I would approach it would be beyond reproach, in my book.
I’d say, first, that I like Joe. He’s a likable guy, and he’s always been nice to me. He sincerely believes in public service, and loves, more than anyone else I’ve ever seen (even Floyd Spence) being a congressman.
But… he is a walking, talking, hand-shaking representative of what’s wrong with Washington. He is a perfect representative of the partisanship that tears our country apart and paralyses our national government. If Joe has ever had an original thought that didn’t come right out of the Republican (or more recently, Tea Party) playbook, I wasn’t around when it happened.
My beef with Joe isn’t that he cried out “You lie!” We all get carried away sometimes. Why once (although when I was only 4 years old), I yelled right out in church, interrupting the preacher, and to this day when I visit Bennettsville, old folks mention it when they see me. Joe got carried away, and he knew he’d done wrong, because he immediately apologized for it.
So I don’t blame him for yelling out, not much anyway. What I blame him for is his deliberate, shameless, continuing effort over the past few years to capitalize on that wrong thing he did, to boast about it and remind folks that he did it, so that they will send him campaign money. That continuing, unapologetic pandering to some of the worst, lowest-common-denominator impulses in our political life, is what I’m running against…
And so forth. See, that’s relevant criticism. And it’s negative. But there wouldn’t be anything wrong with it.