Accent on the negative

Jack W. Germond & Jules Witcover

September 19, 1990|By Jack W. Germond& Jules Witcover

FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla. -- Mac Stipanovich is a GOP political operative who does not evoke much sympathy here in Florida where they know him best. He plays hardball, and he has a wise mouth that sometimes seems to invite controversy.

But Stipanovich, the chief political adviser to Republican Gov. Bob Martinez, has a problem with which other professionals in both parties can sympathize -- how to devise campaign commercials against Democratic nominee Lawton Chiles that will call attention to his vulnerabilities without being accused of "going negative" in an unfair way.

The problem is one that has arisen in virtually every major gubernatorial and Senate campaign across the country. The electorate has been sensitized by the post-mortem complaints that candidate George Bush ran such a harshly negative campaign two years ago but the politicians can't ignore the fact that, as Bush proved, negative campaigns work if they are run right.

The problem here has been exacerbated by a newly developed conventional wisdom that Chiles' landslide success in a Democratic primary can be attributed to a backlash among voters to the negative campaign Rep. Bill Nelson ran against him.

Nelson's campaign had two facets. The first was a series of charges that suggested Chiles, despite his reputation as a clean government reformer, had been involved in some questionable business practices while in the Senate. But political insiders here say the charges were so complicated and vague that the voters understood only that Nelson had "gone negative" without fully understanding the questions he was raising.

The second and potentially more serious question is whether Chiles' decision to retire from the Senate and his admission he had been taking Prozac, a medication for depression, is a legitimate one to raise about his qualifications to become governor.

So far the Martinez campaign has questioned Chiles' history only obliquely with a television commercial that depicts Martinez as a fighter "who never quits and walks away." But, Stipanovich concedes, "We're going to have to be more direct than that."

But the question is whether, for example, the Martinez campaign can fault Chiles for voting in 1986 for the budget agreement that would have frozen cost-of-living benefit increases for Social Security benefits. Or whether it can make hay of the fact that Chiles, despite his commitment to clean politics, won't release his income tax returns.

These issues seem as legitimate in their focus on Chiles' record as Democratic criticism of Martinez's performance as governor. If Martinez can be zinged for trying to promulgate a highly unpopular tax on services, can Chiles be zapped for the Social Security vote?

In some cases, it is easy to identify an unfairly negative attack. In North Carolina, for instance, the Jesse Helms campaign is accusing Democratic challenger Harvey Gantt of approving abortion in the ninth month of a pregnancy, a position he has not taken. But most of the unfair negatives used in campaigns these days are not so easily identified.

The problem for the political operatives has been complicated by a new fad in American journalism -- newspapers analyzing television commercials as to their accuracy and fairness. In many cases, these analyses provide a service voters couldn't get anywhere else simply by outlining the facts of an issue. But in others, fine distinctions between legitimate and unfair negative advertising are lost.

"It's a problem," says Stipanovich, "to the extent which voters decide for themselves what is negative or allow it to be defined by someone else."

The difficulties in finding an acceptable formula don't take into account a more important aspect of campaign dialogue -- that is, whether it deals with the issues relevant to the campaign. Questioning whether Chiles has the stamina to be governor is obviously legitimate, although the issue has to be handled very carefully. But do his votes on Social Security have as much to do with this campaign as his positions on growth, education, the environment and crime?

Too many campaigns are being dominated by the debate over who's playing dirty pool and bickering over attendance records and who took contributions from what questionable sources. But until voters gain a clearer grasp of what constitutes negative campaigning, there will always be awkward questions for the Mac Stipanoviches of U.S. politics.

Columnists Germond and Witcover, members of The Evening Sun's staff, also appear in the Perspective section of Th 0 Sunday Sun.

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