In Praise of Negative Campaigns

Editorial written by Christopher Morrill on Sunday, September 24, 2000

from the mud-slinging-should-be-an-olympic-sport dept.

SIKESTON, MO -- It must be autumn. The air is cool, the kids are back in school, cotton is in full bloom and the fair is over.

And the political attack ads are underway. That's my favorite thing of all.

I think that maybe in a past life I was Lee Atwater, or a reactionary James Carville. I enjoy this stuff a little too much.

I watch the attack ads in a way that most people like football; the more brutality, the better. If there's no mayhem, I demand my money back. I especially get riled up when the "bad guys" (in my case, usually Democrats) take a wicked shot. I may even end up buying popcorn and cigars the week before the elections and staying home every night to watch the tube. No doubt, I view the ads like I would pro wrestling: bona fide entertainment.

Debate nights and election night itself become like a big Super Bowl party.

That's me. Big party boy. What a geek.

Meanwhile, we here in the wishy-washy bellweather state of Missouri are just waiting to see which candidate promises us the most free stuff. And both are. Bush is not running the typical slash-and-burn Republican campaign; even he is promising goodies for everyone. He has taken such a moderate stance that the issues are actually somewhat blurred. I guess it's hard to be fiscally responsible with a budget surplus.

Hence, the polls are tight.

There's an easy way to change that, though.

I'm still a young 'un, so my experience isn't as broad as I would like. But in my memory, I recall with utmost fondness the 1988 presidential elections. That, my friends, was a lot of fun.

Why? Because George Bush wiped the floor with Michael Dukakis thanks to an extremely negative campaign. Bush wasn't a strong candidate, a great stage presence, an excellent debater, a good chooser of vice-presidential candidates (remember Dan Quayle?) or overly charismatic. In fact, Bush was not much of an attractive candidate in any sense. None of that matters, however, if you can convince the undecided voters that your opponent is a scumbag.

Bush's campaign relentlessly hammered Dukakis on the "L" word, "liberal". They made mountains out of molehills. Issues that are truly "fluff" issues like flag-burning, the ACLU, school prayer, and the death penalty were hammered over and over. The unsuspecting people were led to believe that Dukakis wanted to burn every flag, free every death row prisoner to rape your daughter, and essentially outlaw God.

It was a resoundingly negative campaign about mostly inconsequential issues, and it worked like a charm.

In his 1992 reelection bid with Ross Perot breathing down his neck, George Bush refused to succumb to temptation and use the same techniques. Having lost a chunk of his base voters to Buchanan then Perot after a very un-Republican tax increase, this was unthinkable. Bill Clinton, who had plenty of cracks in the armor that would have made for splendid negative ads, got a free pass on the negative ads. And the presidency.

In 1996, following four years of minor scandals with bigger ones to come, Bob Dole's campaign also avoided the low road for the most part. The first two years of Clinton's administration by themselves should have been a negative campaigner's wettest dream. No matter; the economy was good, Clinton was charismatic, and Bob Dole is now retired and making Viagra commercials.

I find it hard to imagine how, in the year 2000, George W. Bush's campaign is avoiding the temptation to go negative. I mean, completely balls-out negative and nasty. One could argue that using eight years of Clinton scandals against Gore might be risky. It doesn't matter either way. The Republicans could go negative without ever having to bring up Clinton. Vice-President Gore has made plenty of flip-flops and told enough bold, outright lies to merit some negative ads in his own right.

Bush faces stiff opposition from an inarguably liberal media, Hollywood, environmentalists, old folks, unions, minorities, anyone without a job, etc. The laundry list of ne'er do wells and liberal sympathizers makes one wonder how a conservative ever wins an election, anywhere.

There are also folks who think he's running on his Dad's name and folks who think his qualifications for the presidency are about the slimmest they've ever seen. Both of which are valid points, by the way. So he needs help.

Everyone says that negative campaigning doesn't work, but I say they're wrong. All things being equal, you must smear a lot of poop (we'll say, "excrement" for the sake of civility) on your opponent without getting much on yourself.

After all, if you can't convince the voters that you're the man, convince them that your opponent is the Antichrist. The result is the same.

With Gore, the excrement is just sitting there. There's plenty of it. The surface has been scratched. But it's a potential gusher of excrement (nice visual, eh?) if the GOP chooses to tap it.

Go negative, young Bush. Summon the ghost of Lee Atwater. Come to the dark side.

After all, I like the entertainment.