Low opinion of politicians was confirmed this year



WASHINGTON -- Candidates of both parties this fall, sensitive to the public resentment of negative campaigning, liked to say that all they were doing was factually criticizing their opponents' records, not their opponents.

There was nothing "negative" about that, they insisted. When they ran television and radio commercials attacking the candidates of the other party, they said, the ads were "comparative," not negative.

But more often than not, what was being passed off as purely factual was distortion, or at least a cute spin on the truth, to make points persuasive to voters.

Take, for example, one commercial that was run by the campaign of Spencer Abraham, Republican candidate for the Senate in Michigan, against Rep. Bob Carr, a Democrat.

The ad charged that Carr cast the deciding vote to approve President Clinton's deficit-reduction package in 1993, which the ad called "the largest tax increase in history."

The package actually increased income taxes on only the top 1.5 percent of taxpayers, but the Abraham campaign argued that higher taxes on gasoline justified the label.

Beyond that, there was no way to establish that Carr cast the deciding vote, because the measure passed in the House by a single vote, meaning that anyone who supported it could be said to have cast the decider.

It was Abraham's good fortune, however, that Clinton went to Michigan and said that "if it hadn't been for Congressman Carr, this bill would not have passed."

Abraham's campaign strategists took the videotape and built a television commercial around it.

Other Republican candidates didn't have that campaign bonanza, but they, too, charged that their opponent, if he or she was an incumbent in Congress, cast the deciding vote for "the largest tax increase in history."

Democrats chided their Republican opponents for saying they were for a balanced budget even as they criticized a vote that lowered the deficit, and they disputed that it was achieved by the largest tax increase in history, arguing that that "honor" belonged to Ronald Reagan in his first term. Carr told audiences: "Let him defend the 1 percent [whose taxes went up]; I'll defend the other 99."

The widespread Republican charge that this or that Democratic incumbent cast "the deciding vote" that created "the largest tax increase in history" was hardly a coincidence. The Republican National Committee ground out "talking points" for its candidates in local scripts and ads.

The Democratic National Committee did the same thing on its side. Democratic House candidates were coached to hammer at their Republican opponents for supporting the "Contract with America" dreamed up by House Minority Whip Newt Gingrich.

It pledged that the Republicans, if they won control of the House, would cut congressional staffs and budget and in the first 100 days of the new session bring 10 specific bills to a vote. Most of them were rehashes of old Republican objectives like a balanced-budget amendment, the line-item veto, congressional term limits, tax cuts and more defense spending.

Democratic candidates offered creative interpretations of what the "contract" really called for. To carry it out, they said, the Republicans would have to accept cuts in Social Security, Medicare and other entitlement programs cherished by the voters, so those Republicans were really advocating such cuts.

Needless to say, the Republicans screamed bloody murder, flatly denying that they favored any such politically explosive cuts. Some Republicans said defensively that they were supporting the contract merely to ensure that the bills listed came to a vote.

The Democrats also charged that the "Contract with America" amounted to a complete rollback to the Reagan 1980s economic formula of balancing the budget while cutting taxes and increasing military spending. What George Bush called "voodoo economics" in 1980, Democrats now called "Voodoo Two."

The candidates of both parties defended all this as a "comparative" examination of their opponents' records, but it probably sounded like the same old negative stuff to the average voter.

In the current climate of politics, candidates insist they aren't "going negative" just so long as they don't charge the opposition with being guilty of rape, murder and pillage. So the attacks go on, and the public esteem of politics and politicians continues to crumble.

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