Jewish World Review Oct. 27, 2000 / 28 Tishrei, 5761
http://www.jewishworldreview.com -- IF NOTHING ELSE, this presidential election will provide a referendum on negative advertising.
With barely a week before the big vote, Al Gore has put on an ad blitz notable for its refusal to tout the virtues of two people: Bill Clinton and Al Gore.
The Democratic team evidently has decided that Gore is about as easy to sell as a menthol hemorrhoid preparation, and so has given up on the enterprise. The veep's forces have dispatched their own version of minutemen to warn that George W. Bush is a cross between Adolph Hitler and the Waterboy.
The press has been lapping up stories about air quality in Houston (where the city's papers have endorsed Bush), ineptness in Austin (where the city's famously liberal newspaper declared its support of Bush in gushy and loving terms) and emptiness between Bush's slightly pointy ears. Noted populist Michael Kinsley has warned that Bush isn't as witty and sizzling as the man who wrote "Earth in the Balance" and hired Naomi Wolf as a manhood consultant.
Meanwhile, the NAACP put together arguably the most vile ad ever run in a presidential campaign -- insinuating that Bush cast an approving eye toward the lynching of James Byrd. The piece features Byrd's daughter, who says she is distraught the governor wouldn't sign a new hate-crimes statute -- Texas already has one -- even though two of her father's murderers got the death penalty and the guy who cooperated with authorities got life in the slammer.
If any advertisement could qualify as a hate crime, this one would. And it has become the template for the final-stretch Gore campaign. Vice-presidential operatives are burning up the phone lines with pre-recorded messages from a variety of women who say they hail from Texas. "Ann Friday" and "Charlotte Cherry" accuse Bush of murdering a husband and giving kids asthma. There are also reports of a third call, reiterating the Bush-as-lyncher theme.
This makes it all the more hilarious that the Democratic National Committee has issued an alert asking voters to look for Republican dirty tricks -- such as monitoring polling sites, to make sure visitors vote only once, and under their real names.
Gore's problem, as I have noted before, is that Democrats don't give a rip about him. His Senate colleagues recall him as a somewhat cold fish, who used to pull such stunts as reading physics texts in the hallway -- with eyes focused not on the book, but at oncoming pedestrian traffic. His debate performances made him look weird, not presidential. And every voter recalls the magical moment when, on the day of Bill Clinton's impeachment, Gore introduced "one of the greatest presidents in American history" -- the man who used Monica as a humidor.
Voters respond to various kinds of incentives. Some flock to the polls out of pride and idealism. John McCain sought to inspire his charges this way. Some appeal to the party's yearning for victory. This is the Bush approach. And some scare the bejabbers out of voters by portraying the political opposition as the incarnation of all known evil. This is Gore's tactic.
The fright game worked two years ago in Maryland, where Democrat Parris Glendenning overcame a challenge from Republican challenger Ellen Sauerbrey by playing a series of incendiary racial ads and dispatching Bill Clinton to black churches, where he bit his lip, and welcomed hatred and fear.
But that was then. Early returns suggest that the Gore crusade isn't working. By appealing to the baser sides of human nature -- fear and hatred and cupidity -- Gore unwittingly is making voters feel dirty. He has become a victim of the smugness that has enveloped his party over the years -- the certain belief that he and his colleagues are smarter, nobler and holier than Republicans, and that they are justified in using any and all conceivable means to stamp out the opposition.
Although Bush isn't wowing people with his command presence, he is playing to large and enthusiastic audiences. Furthermore, his ads feature him -- not some shadowy surrogate -- looking directly into the camera, talking to voters.
Conventional wisdom has it that negative ads work and positive stuff doesn't. We'll see. If
Gore wins, he will have managed not only to cover up his most attractive personality traits, he
also will have built a coalition on the two characteristics least congenial to successful
government -- fear and