Washinton -- WHEN EVER an independent political group runs a negative TV ad there is always the suspicion that it is acting with the approval or at least the acquiescence of the individual or the campaign that is the beneficiary of the ad.
Politics being what it is these days,that's not surprising.
When an independent expenditure committee in California ran ads in the 1988 presidential campaign featuring Willie Horton the convicted murderer who raped a Maryland woman while on weekend furlough from a Massachusetts prison, the George Bush campaign was immediately suspect. And when Bush's managers denied any connection, skeptics wrote the denial off as another part of the caper.
In that case, Bush himself had injected Horton into his campaign against the "permissive" governor in question, Michael Dukakis. So his campaign's denials of involvement in the California ads, in a Republican fund-raising letter in Maryland and in an Illinois state party flier linking Dukakis and Horton, all took on a hollow ring.
The latest notable adventure into negative TV advertising, however, seems more a case of stupidity than of collusion. The ad being run by an independent Conservative Victory Committee working for the Senate confirmation of Judge Clarence Thomas is so blatant in its attack on three Democratic liberal senators that the strong White House denials of paternity have uncommon credibility.
Even in this anything-goes era of politics, it is folly to think that friends of Judge Thomas can win support for him -- in the Senate, where the confirmation vote will take place -- by clobbering the three, Ted Kennedy, Joe Biden and Alan Cranston, for lack of ethics. Referring to Kennedy's Chappaquiddick nightmare, the charges of plagiarism against Biden in the 1988 campaign and Cranston's involvement in the savings-and-loan scandal, the ad asks: "How many of these liberal Democrats could themselves pass ethical scrutiny?"
It is one thing in a general election to color voters' opinions of a candidate with negative, personal attacks and by so doing persuade them to vote against that candidate, as proved so effective in the Willie Horton assault on Dukakis. It is quite another somehow to try to affect the votes of individual senators in a confirmation process by arousing conservative passions against their colleagues of whatever party.
The kiss-off administered to the attackers by the White House is credible not so much for the vehemence with which it was expressed by President Bush as for the track record on negative campaigning of the administration's point man in Thomas' defense -- Republican Sen. John Danforth of Missouri.
Danforth has authored legislation that would require all negative television advertising in a federal campaign to be presented directly by the candidate who would benefit, and would oblige a television station running such advertising to provide equal time for the attacked candidate to reply. But this kind of ad involving a Supreme Court nomination would not be affected. Danforth has called the ad in question "the worst kind of sleazy advertising" and has deplored the use of any television commercials at all as "a perversion of the process of advise and consent" in the Senate.
One of the major consequences in the disintegration of party discipline is the proliferation of independent political groups that feel free to conduct their own campaigns, often with wretched excess, out of reach of the party or even of the individual those excesses are designed to help. Thomas' plea to supporters to "conduct themselves with a proper respect for the important role and responsibilities of the Senate" was summarily dismissed by the sponsors of the offending ad as something Thomas had to say because "he's got to face these liberal Democrats."
L. Brent Bozell, architect of the anti-liberals commercial, compares it with ads run by liberal groups who opposed the Senate confirmation in 1987 of Judge Robert Bork and says conservatives won't sit idly by this time around. Those ads, however, were critical of Bork the Supreme Court nominee, not his Senate defenders. Thomas' overzealous supporters are doing him no favors with their intemperate spray shots against the three Democrats, as is obvious by the White House's swift, outspoken and believable denial of any connection with the ad.