Compounding it all, there is no stopping your opponent from taking the initiative. Is your opponent telling the public the truth, exaggerating, taking what you said out of context or even lying? Campaign insiders may know the real truth, but their votes aren't going to get you elected. You need to tell the public what really happened in no uncertain terms. Without taking your case to the public to counter these charges, and without then taking the initiative against your opponent, you risk appearing weak and affirming by your silence the credibility of your opponent's remarks. Should you have attacked back? I know ''He started it!'' sounds immature, but as a practical matter, what alternative do you have?
So what's an honest, positive-thinking candidate to do? Voters need to realize that they can't have it both ways. If they expect to be well enough informed to make an intelligent decision on Election Day, they need to appreciate the absolute necessity for negative campaigning and not hold it against the candidate -- matters of poor taste, exaggeration and outright lies notwithstanding.
As a voter do you want a ''clean'' campaign, or do you want to be well informed and leave it to the candidates to demonstrate their character by virtue of the substance and style of their debate? Make up your mind.
Skillfully and tastefully executed, negative campaigning can and should be informative, without being slanderous or sleazy. It can effective, without being harsh. It's education, not ''opponent bashing,'' that the electorate needs. When it comes right down to it, it's not the attack itself which bothers the public, is it? It's the campaign's style and finesse that draw the fine line between educating and offending the electorate. What we need here is a change in terminology to something, let's say ''critical campaigning,'' with a more positive connotation.
What choice does a candidate have if winning is really the objective? The fact is, I think a good portion, perhaps even the vast majority of the electorate expects negative campaigning for the reasons I have outlined and doesn't have complete confidence in any candidate who isn't aggressive enough to use every legitimate tool at his or her disposal to get elected.
Mr. Cohen was one of the campaign coordinators for Ted Sophocleus, who ran for Anne Arundel County executive.