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Jewish World Review Jan. 21, 2000 /14 Shevat, 5760

Tony Snow

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Issue ads force candidates to show their cards -- IN RECENT CONTRETEMPS among Democrats and Republicans, discerning viewers can see two distinguishing features of modern political life: the shameless exaggeration of social ills and the deliberate rape of the English language.

The pattern recurs in everything from talk about gun control -- where Democrats are ignoring the fact that gun violence is and has been on the decline -- to Republican gibbering about entitlements. But the most curious bit of dishonesty involves the universal complaint about "negative campaigning."

Everyone claims to hate it, and most politicians say they detect it in their opponents' advertisements and stump speeches. But in truth, the phenomenon has rarely shown itself this political season.

A negative ad spreads a malicious falsehood. Lyndon Johnson practiced the art when he insinuated that Barry Goldwater would incinerate the planet.

Democratic hacks committed it months ago when they claimed to have pictures of George W. Bush doing the funky chicken in the buff in an unnamed saloon.

No man in the race today has tried to smear his fellow party members in such ways. Al Gore makes a great show of talking about the great honor of sharing a stage with such a man as Bill Bradley -- whatever that means -- and George W. Bush and John McCain have swapped endearments that seem to verge on heavy petting.

We hear widespread whining not because would-be presidents believe they have suffered actionable slander, but because they want to avoid talking about the rightful core of any campaign -- their ideas and records. Each of the histrionic offers to rise above "negativity" are but sly appeals for wall-to-wall imbecility.

The "negative ad" tag is a classic example false labeling. The commercials in question more properly should be called "issue ads" -- and we need more of them, not less. It matters what a candidate says and does. The public winked at Bill Clinton's indiscretions in 1992 and now most of us have a profound case of buyer's remorse.

People at this juncture have little clue about candidates' beliefs and only cartoonish views of their character. New Hampshire independent voters seem equally enamored of John McCain and Bill Bradley, for instance, despite vast differences between the two on everything from abortion to the conduct of war.

But we live in a cautious age, and politicians reveal only as much of their hearts as they feel compelled to show. They need a good shove. And this is where issue brawls figure in.

Consider the hidden virtues of two much-criticized attacks.

First is Steve Forbes' claim that George W. Bush broke a no-taxes pledge as governor of Texas. The assault is true. Early on, Bush sought to hike sales taxes in exchange for an even bigger cut in property taxes. He got nowhere with the idea -- just as Michigan's John Engler lost a similar bid to rejigger the tax system in Michigan. Chastened, he rammed through the two largest tax cuts in Texas history.

The complaint actually illuminated one of Bush's virtues: He learns from his mistakes. He messed up, fessed up and he made up for his lapse.

Example Two: Al Gore accused Bill Bradley of voting against a Midwestern flood-relief bill in 1993. True again: Bradley rejected the measure -- after giving his assent to other measures providing billions in flood relief -- because some of his colleagues cynically loaded it up with pork-barrel projects completely unrelated to the natural disaster. Senior Democrats from the Midwest also voted nay on the legislation. As with the Bush case, a "negative" attack provided an opportunity to highlight the candidate's virtues and, conversely, a way of gauging the assailant's seriousness.

So let the "negativity" flourish! This year's campaign is alarmingly tame by historical standards and politicians could stand to have their mettle tested. The campaign of 2000 is shaping up to become the most ideological since 1984, and perhaps the most riveting since 1960. Al Gore and Bill Bradley are running left during the primaries, while Republicans are running vaguely toward the right. This sets the stage for a showdown over important things: the size of government, the virtues of public education, the limits of environmentalism, the future of Social Security and federally regulated health care -- and that's for starters.

Issue ads will force candidates to show their cards -- and thus make it easier for us to do the right thing in the primaries and on Election Day.

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©1999, Creators Syndicate