Will governor's race be doubly negative?

July 15, 2002|By Richard E. Vatz

How ugly can or will the Robert Ehrlich-Kathleen Kennedy Townsend gubernatorial race get?

As Kathleen Hall Jamieson, dean of the University of Pennsylvania's Annenberg School for Communication, has pointed out, from the very beginning American political campaigns have employed strategies which "vilified" opponents. In fact, how could it be otherwise?

In order to argue that voters should support one individual over another, one must argue that the candidate is an exceptional choice and that the candidate is a better choice because of deficiencies in his/her opponent.

This means that "negative campaigning" is simply impossible to avoid if one is to successfully compete in a close election, yet the polls consistently show that up to 80 percent of the American public deplores "negative campaigning" and "negative political advertising." They disagree more about whether particular campaigns were dominated by negative campaigning.

Thus, there is no consensus on what constitutes negative campaigning, especially as that term suggests "unethical" campaigning. There is little agreement on what is irrelevant (business practices?) or unfair (divorce record?) in a campaign, partly because people's tolerance for nasty messages is often a function of whether they support the candidate who is the object of such messages.

Moreover, the conventions of political campaigning allow also for tough disapproval and exaggeration. Two slogans come to mind: Harry Truman's "If you can't stand the heat, get out of the kitchen" and the observation by Mr. Dooley, the political sage-Irish barkeep created by Finley Peter Dunne, that "politics ain't beanbag."

That said, there are lines that negative criticism should not cross, mainly for ethical reasons -- but for practical reasons, too. Good government relies on the perception that its leaders have gained office legitimately.

The American Association of Political Consultants sports a code of ethics that, among other things, pledges that consultants (and by implication their candidates) will "refrain from false or misleading attacks on an opponent ... and will use no appeal to voters' racism [or] sexism."

Let's apply these reasonable criteria to just a couple of points that have or will come up in the current gubernatorial campaign and see what they imply for ethical campaigning in the gubernatorial race:

Issue: Mr. Ehrlich's votes as a member of the House of Representatives. This is legitimate. There are complexities to their consideration, such as the horse trading that all of those involved in legislative processes must consider (i.e., to get "x" bill passed, you often have to support "y" policy whether you like it or not), but there is no reason that Democrats cannot bring up such matters. Republicans can note that Ms. Townsend has not cast any votes.

Issue: Ms. Townsend and Mr. Glendening's policies. This is legitimate. Ms. Townsend was and is part of an administration, and her implicit support of its practices regarding, for example, growth of state government, tax policy and the criminal justice system can be inferred and responsibility can be assigned to her. Any waffling on issues is also legitimate grist for either opponent.

Issue: Mr. Ehrlich's association with Newt Gingrich. This is the classically unfair guilt-by-association gambit. Mr. Ehrlich is not responsible for the dislike people have for Mr. Gingrich, but he is responsible for policies he (Mr. Ehrlich) supports regardless of whether they are tied to the former House speaker.

Issue: Ms. Townsend's inarticulateness and gaffes. This is a point that may well be considered by voters, but it is not legitimate as an issue.

If Ms. Townsend is unable to articulate her position on political issues, that would be legitimate fodder for criticism.

The first rule of effectiveness in negative campaigning and advertising is that such negativism has virtually no effect on candidates with stable support. The current gubernatorial campaign is the perfectly unstable campaign in which negativism will be quite consequential.

The hope is that the public's sense of fairness will reject unfair and inaccurate negative campaigning. The history of negative campaigning, however, militates against that hope.

Richard E. Vatz teaches political rhetoric at Towson University.

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