Avoiding the negative

January 17, 2000|By Jack W. Germond and Jules Witcover

CONCORD, N.H. -- In 1984 Republican Sen. Jesse Helms of North Carolina defeated Democratic Gov. James B. Hunt in what was then considered by many political veterans to be the most negative campaigns in modern American politics.

They spent something approaching $20 million, a huge amount for the time, mostly on television commercials tearing each other down. The campaign was so bitter and harsh, in fact, that North Carolina voters were offended and repelled. The result was that in the next Senate campaign in the state, only two years later, neither candidate dared to "go negative" against his opponent.

Their fear of offending sometimes reached ridiculous levels. When a reporter asked Rep. Jim Broyhill, the Republican candidate, why he would be a better senator than his Democratic opponent, Mr. Broyhill exploded. "You're trying to get me to say something negative about Terry Sanford, and I'm not going to do that," he declared.

The history of that campaign comes to mind these days in the contests for the Republican and Democratic presidential nominations. All four of the candidates with any realistic chance of being nominated are going to extraordinary lengths to avoid appearing negative.

On the GOP side, Gov. George W. Bush of Texas and Sen. John S. McCain of Arizona, make a point of saying how much they like one another. When Mr. Bush warned his supporters that he was in an intense contest in the New Hampshire primary, he made a point of calling it "a fight with a friend." When Mr. McCain was accused of doing favors for campaign contributors, Mr. Bush quickly reassured voters that Mr. McCain had done nothing wrong.

In the Democratic campaign, the amity may be a bit more strained. Vice President Al Gore keeps talking about how Bill Bradley is a "good man" but his tone is a little condescending. And Mr. Bradley keeps referring in collegial terms to his old buddy "Al" but his attitude is sometimes patronizing.

But despite the obvious tensions between the two Democrats, their television commercials stray from the positive only obliquely. Mr. Gore says, for example, that he is the "only Democrat" who has made education central to his campaign, a mild dig at the only other Democrat in the field. When Mr. Bradley talks about the need for big ideas, the clear implication is that he is juxtaposing himself against the narrow politics-as-usual thinking of his only opponent.

The compulsion to avoid appearing negative seems to be partly a product of the 1996 GOP campaign here in which Steve Forbes ran a heavy schedule of TV commercials attacking Bob Dole, a move that drove Mr. Dole's negatives higher but also destroyed Mr. Forbes' own credibility.

But there is also a feeling among prominent local supporters of all the candidates that voters have no patience with attack ads these days so they will backfire. The trick is to appear to be that "different" kind of politician, which is difficult for a vice president or a scion of a family dynasty but less so for challengers.

Here in New Hampshire the conventional wisdom holds that the revulsion against negative politics is particularly strong among independent voters, who are being pursued so assiduously by Mr. Bradley and Mr. McCain, a group that makes up 34 percent of the total electorate.

The definition of what constitutes "negative" campaigning and what is simply "comparative" seems to be amorphous. Even factual statements can push a candidate onto the defensive.

When, for example, Mr. Bradley noted the other day that Mr. Gore had opposed public funding of abortions when he served in Congress, the Gore campaign howled that Mr. Bradley was "going negative" because he was slipping in the polls.

At the staff level, there is no hesitation about cutting up foes -- as long as staffers can do so anonymously. And too often the press allows the strategists to do their spin without being held accountable.

The problem with all this positive politics is that there is so much evidence that "going negative" works so long as there is even a kernel of fact in an accusation.

So the operative question is whether the campaigns can resist the temptation to savage the opposition and worry about the backlash after the votes are counted.

Jack W. Germond and Jules Witcover write from the Washington Bureau.

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