Certain signs of the season have arisen. For those who watch politics, they are as regular as clockwork and trumpet the start of a glorious time of political passion and intrapartisan fistfights.
Iowa is behind us. There has been an upset. The election-year state of the union address has been articulated. Candidates have dropped out and thrown support to the seeming frontrunner. Some campaigns have something called “momentum.” In New Hampshire, the obligatory “we reporters are cold, but the candidates are still campaigning” stories have all been filed.
And, hand wringing has begun. Political observers say that the campaigns are beginning to “go negative.” Governor Dean blames his loss in Iowa on such attacks, calling himself a “pin cushion,” the result of his erstwhile frontrunner status. Now he vows to fight all the harder. Senator Edwards apparently did so well because of his basically positive, compassionate style. And, General Wesley Clark’s campaign has gotten New York Times scrutiny for his use of opposition research on opponents.
It is only a matter of time before one candidate takes the step of proposing a “pledge” to forswear all “negative ads.” Having myself spent many election cycles promoting such pledges, I view this likelihood with mixed feelings. On the one hand, anything that draws attention to unfair campaigning as an issue must be counted a good thing. Modern campaigns have metastasized into creatures that only serve to remind people why they hate politics. On the other hand, there is a pernicious misunderstanding about so-called negative ads. The result is a sense that politics must always be a negative sport, filled with vitriol and personal attacks.
The problem lies with the definition of “negative.” Most political insiders use the word to mean “anything critical of an opponent.” But most people at home, in their living rooms, take the word to mean “unfair.” That opens the door to all manner of foolishness. Here’s an example: One candidate says that his opponent takes campaign contributions from Big Oil. That candidate calls such an attack “going negative.” Because it actually is negative in the sense that it’s “critical,” news items run about the negative attack. People at home are left with the idea that the overall campaign has devolved into personal and unfair attacks, while in fact the question of campaign contributions is a fair issue to discuss.
A far better way to characterize the kind of campaigning that drives a stake into the heart of civic life, is instead to talk about “unfair attacks.” These are the irresponsible, dishonest statements and actions that voters loathe. But what does this mean? What is OK, and what isn’t?
In the most recent Civic Values Survey (a bipartisan poll on political attitudes conducted for the Institute for Global Ethics), when asked about what sorts of criticisms are fair or unfair, Americans say it is fair to criticize an opponent for:
* An opponent’s voting record (68% say this is fair)
* Criticizing a candidate for talking one way and voting another (71%)
* An opponent’s business practices (53%)
* Criticizing an opponent for accepting contributions from special interest groups (57%)
* Criticizing an opponent for not paying taxes on time (61%)
And they say it is unfair to criticize an opponent for:
* Criticizing the actions of an opponent’s family (89% say this is unfair)
* Past troubles such as alcoholism or marijuana use (69%)
* Marital infidelity (57%)
* Past personal financial problems (81%)
* Financing your campaign yourself (76%)
Those who say any statement critical of the opposition is to be avoided are wrong — Americans do not want nice politics, nor do they deserve the insipid debate that it would engender. They want and deserve hard-hitting arguments between real candidates about issues that matter. And, they are very clear about what issues matter and which ones don’t. The poll referred to above is from 2002, but it was taken at two-year intervals frequently up to that time — and the findings remained stable.
Candidates, take heed and take heart: you can criticize your opponents.
And journalists, take note: While the gloves may well have come off and criticism between campaigns has begun, it is by no means the beginning of the end. The candidates are in general talking — arguing — about things that matter.
Just as Americans want.