Those who take a certain pleasure in denouncing the evils of negative political advertising should have spent the last week in South Carolina. They could have plunked down in front of TV sets, especially during morning, early evening and late evening news programs, and by adroit use of the remote control seen one negative spot after another.
They could have watched again and again the Ron Paul campaign’s stinging denunciation of Newt Gingrich for, among other things, taking $1.6 million from Freddie Mac.
They could have seen a similar assault on Gingrich from the pro-Romney Restore Our Future super PAC (by the way, how do you restore something which by definition doesn’t yet exist?).
They could have taken delight in the Rick Santorum campaign’s ad highlighting similarities between Mitt Romney’s record on issues and that of Barack Obama, or in Paul’s stinging ad denouncing Santorum as a “big government conservative.”
All of these ads, you may notice, targeted the three candidates who, coming out of Iowa and New Hampshire, were considered by themselves and others as having some chance of winning the nomination: Romney, Gingrich and Santorum. Left largely unattacked were Paul, who confesses he has no chance to win, and Rick Perry, who withdrew Thursday morning.
There is a near-unanimous sentiment among the high-minded that negative advertising is a bad thing. It pollutes the air even more than carbon dioxide. It breeds cynicism about politics and government. It is somehow unfair.
In response, let me say a few words in praise of negative ads.
First, elections are an adversary business, zero-sum games in which only one candidate can win and all the others must lose. Sometimes it’s smart for competitors to concede points to their opponents. But it’s irrational to expect one side to sing consistent praises of the other.
In second-grade elections, it may be considered bragging to vote for yourself. But it is silly to expect adults to behave this way.
It is especially foolish to expect that candidates who seem headed to win elections should escape criticism on television. Every candidate has weak points and makes mistakes. It’s not dirty pool for opponents to point them out.
Second, it is said that negative ads can be inaccurate and unfair. Well, yes — but so can positive ads. An inaccurate or unfair ad invites refutation and rebuttal, by opponents or in the media, and can boomerang against the attacker. So candidates have an incentive to make attacks that can be sustained.
Sometimes voters respond negatively even to fair attacks. That’s why in multi-candidate races, an attack by candidate A on candidate B can hurt A as well as B, and end up helping candidate C or D.
That’s why many campaigns hesitate before attacking. And it also gives them a motive to make attacks that can be sustained because they are accurate and fair.
Third, advertising is not always decisive. Other things can matter more. The barrage of negative ads against Gingrich hurt him in Iowa and New Hampshire, but in South Carolina (which has not yet voted as I write) it did not prevent him from overtaking first Santorum and drawing even with Romney in the polls. Debate performances trumped attack spots.
Behind the disdain of the high-minded for negative campaign spots is a fear that they will erode Americans’ faith in politics and government. These folks like to cite polls showing Americans once had great confidence in institutions and that now they lack it.
But polls have been showing lack of faith in institutions going back to the late 1960s. The only time when pollsters found high levels of confidence was when the questions were first asked in the 1950s. That was during the two decades when American institutions — big government, big business, big labor — enjoyed enormous prestige after they led the nation to victory in World War II and presided over the unexpected growth and prosperity of the postwar era.
I strongly suspect that if you could go farther back in history and ask those same questions, you would find that during much of our history, most Americans were grousing about politicians and complaining about government. Mark Twain and Will Rogers made good livings doing so.
In any case, negative campaigning will persist. Those who enjoy wallowing in negative ads should fly to Florida, find a TV and keep clicking the remote control.
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