Jewish World Review March 11, 1999 /23 Adar 5759
In praise of negative campaigning
WHEN A POLITICIAN IMPLORES his rivals to disavow negative campaigning, I
wonder what part of his program or record he doesn't want discussed and why.
Last week, Arizona Sen. John McCain, the Republican the media wants to go
home with when the bar closes, urged candidates for the GOP presidential
nomination "not to stoop to negative campaigning against fellow
"Don't let's go down the road of mindlessly destroying each other," McCain
pleaded. The senator warned that "scorched-earth Republican primaries will
lead directly to an Al Gore presidency."
Seconding the call for a tepid beauty pageant, GOP Chairman Jim Nicholson
threatened to "blow the whistle" on those who speak ill of fellow
Conventional wisdom (almost always wrong) holds that attacks on Bob Dole by
Steve Forbes and Pat Buchanan, during the 1996 GOP primary campaign,
contributed to Dole's defeat in November.
This is a fascinating theory, lacking only a basis in reality. Try to
imagine circumstances in which the lackluster, dyspeptic Dole could
conceivably have defeated Clinton.
In answer to criticism that he was being too hard on the then-Senate
majority leader, Buchanan observed, "If he can't stand up to me, he won't be
able to stand up to Bill Clinton." Dole couldn't and didn't.
In 1988, Pete DuPont and Jack Kemp bashed George Bush as a coupon-clipping
Republican, challenging his right to Reagan's supply-side mantle by
reminding voters that Bush called Reaganomics "voodoo economics" in 1980.
The vice president took his lumps and moved to the right on taxes and
spending, thereby adopting a strategy that allowed him to defeat Michael
Dukakis in the general election.
Clinton's Democratic rivals were even harder on him when he was the
front-runner for the nomination in 1992, questioning everything from his
wife's business dealings to his slavish devotion to special interests (the
pander-bear, the late Sen. Paul Tsongis called him).
Negative primary campaigning isn't a harbinger of disaster in November. An
interparty love-fest is no guarantee of victory.
It's easy to see why McCain, who has undisguised presidential ambitions,
would favor primaries devoid of substance.
McCain's tobacco bill included a minimum of $47 billion annually in new
taxes. The anti-First Amendment McCain-Feingold campaign-finance bill would
have made it illegal for advocacy groups like National Right to Life and the
ACLU to comment on an incumbent's voting record.
These statist measures -- the proposals for which McCain is best known --
should have as much appeal for GOP primary voters as solicitations for the
Clinton presidential library.
Grover G. Norquist, president of Americans for Tax Reform and a key advisor
to former House Speaker Newt Gingrich, notes that when companies began
comparing their products to their competitors' in the 1970s, the advertising
strategy was considered a major advance for consumers.
As long as Bayer Asprin's references to Buffrin and Excedrin were factual,
its ads were deemed to be valuable consumer input.
Primary voters are also consumers, choosing a product that they hope will
be durable enough to last through November and four years in office. The GOP
needs the kind of vetting that so-called negative campaigning provides.
If Texas Gov. George W. Bush Jr. has taken a position or favored
legislation that demonstrates a lack of commitment to a limited-government,
pro-family values vision, I want to know about it before he has the party's
If Forbes or Gary Bauer brings this to my attention, I'm grateful for the
I want to know exactly where the candidates differ and why. I've been
around long enough to be able to distinguish between valid criticism and
distortions driven by desperation.
Norquist notes that challenging a candidate's record or positions "toughens
him, inoculates him or kills him." Presidential primaries are the equivalent
of boot camp. Better a would-be warrior fails here than in hand-to-hand
Following McCain's prescription would make for a lively primary season.
Bush to Forbes, "Oh, Steve, I just love your flat-tax proposal." Forbes:
"Why, thank you, George. And your compassionate conservativism is certainly
intriguing." A few months of that, and the footnotes in Gore's "Earth in the
Balance" will seem spellbinding by comparison.
As long as the rap is accurate and issue-oriented, Republicans shouldn't be
afraid to mix it up. Voters might actually begin noticing
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