Campaigns Accentuate the Negative

*Attacks by both parties have taken incivility to a new level this year, analysts say. The result is a divisive climate in and out of politics.

By Janet Hook, Times Staff Writer

WASHINGTON â€" Three years ago, a line was quietly crossed in the annals of political history.

In newspapers across South Dakota, an out-of-state conservative group ran a political ad linking a Democratic senator to former Iraqi President Saddam Hussein. Critics cried foul, saying it breached standards of political decency.

That was then. This is now, and campaign efforts to link politicians to terrorists are a dime a dozen. And they are coming not from little-known fringe groups but from such pillars of the political establishment as the speaker of the House.

Therein lies the dubious hallmark of the 2004 election cycle. It has evolved into one of the most relentlessly negative political campaigns in memory, as attacks on a candidate's character, patriotism and fitness for office, which once seemed out of bounds, have become routine. More ads than ever focused on discrediting an opponent rather than promoting a candidate, independent analysts said. And, the analysts warned, the presidential campaign was breaking new ground in a candidate's willingness to bend the truth.

"There is a very high level of factual inaccuracy out there," said Kathleen Hall Jamieson, director of the University of Pennsylvania's Annenberg Public Policy Center, whose website, http://www.factcheck.org , has identified dozens of major distortions in presidential campaign ads and speeches this year.

Especially in recent weeks, she said, the rhetoric has been "as dirty as I can remember."

Mudslinging has been part of American politics since mud was around to sling. But politicians and nonpartisan analysts said that 2004 has taken incivility to a new level. "The indecent has become the methodology of the day," said Rep. James A. Leach (R-Iowa), a politician who has pledged never to criticize an opponent. "Politics always implies division, but it does not have to involve bad manners."

But the coarseness of the presidential campaign is not just a lapse of manners: It is a dynamic that could be central to the outcome. Perhaps nothing has done more to shape the campaign than President Bush's effort to define his Democratic opponent, Sen. John F. Kerry, as a "flip-flopper" who is liberal at the core â€" and what some analysts said was the GOP's willingness to take liberties with Kerry's record to make the point.

Bush ran his first attack ad March 4 â€" two days after Kerry's victories in the "Super Tuesday" primaries effectively clinched the Democratic nomination. Since then, Bush has pressed the message that Kerry was not simply a man with whom he disagreed, but one who lacked the character and integrity to serve as president.

Kerry has practiced his own brand of negative campaigning, approaching but not quite crossing the line of calling Bush a liar. But those attacks have not been as central to his campaign strategy as Bush's effort to define Kerry before he defined himself.

Prior to the Democratic convention, Kerry ran fewer negative ads than Bush, research shows, and at the convention his aides made a concerted effort to expunge speeches of Bush-bashing rhetoric. Kerry has accelerated his attacks, but his attacks may have come too late to significantly alter the the race.

Darrell West, a political scientist at Brown University in Rhode Island, said that Kerry had been not only less negative than Bush, his team was not as disciplined as Bush's at attack politics. "Bush went negative March 4 and never stopped. Kerry has only seriously opened up in the last couple weeks," he said. "It's like the major leagues playing a Triple-A team."

Some saw the presidential debates as a refreshing, substantive break from the harsh tone of advertising and campaign-trail rhetoric. Also, voters in many states â€" including California â€" have been spared the main barrage of attack ads because they have aired mostly in those battleground states.

But the nasty edge of politics is not limited to the presidential campaign; it infects political culture at most levels.

In Washington state's U.S. Senate race, Republican Rep. George R. Nethercutt has run a television ad portraying Democratic Sen. Patty Murray as soft on Osama bin Laden.

In Oklahoma, when Tom Coburn, the GOP candidate for the U.S. Senate, called state legislators "crapheads," Democrats slapped the offhand comment on billboards.

The corrosive partisanship of campaigning has infected governing as well. In a gridlocked Congress, mistrust and animosity sapped the will to forge compromise. In the House, the well was so poisoned that lawmakers canceled a bipartisan retreat that they used to hold to foster civility. In the Senate, the tradition of comity between leaders was shattered this year when Majority Leader Bill Frist (R-Tenn.) campaigned in South Dakota against Minority Leader Tom Daschle's reelection. Some viewed all this as evidence that Bush had failed to fulfill his 2000 campaign promise to "change the tone in Washington," to make it less partisan and bitter. But former Republican Sen. Alan K. Simpson of Wyoming said the decline of civility reached so deeply into American culture that it was hard to hold Bush responsible.

"Don't blame it on George Bush about dividing the country," Simpson said recently on CNN. "Go look at your county commissioners. Go look at your school boards. Go look at television. Everything is smart and sarcastic and divisive and nasty and cutesy."

Early in the presidential contest, there were fleeting signs that it would be the kind of campaign that would warm the hearts of good-government reformers â€" clean, positive, focused on big issues.

In the Democratic primaries, voters seemed to punish candidates who attacked their opponents and reward those who had focused on their messages. A new campaign finance law was supposed to limit the effect of special interests. Some predicted that a new requirement â€" that ads include the explicit endorsement of their content by a candidate â€" would lessen the number of attacks.

But the 2004 campaign has become the kind of race that would warm the heart of Lee Atwater, the architect of the successful 1988 presidential race by Bush's father. The GOP's hard-hitting attacks on Democrat Michael S. Dukakis that year were viewed as a watershed in the escalation of negative campaigning. One of Atwater's sidekicks in the campaign was none other than the candidate's son â€" George W. Bush.

Of course, Atwater did not invent negative campaigning. The 1800 presidential campaign was an early example of an especially nasty one. John Adams was accused of being a monarchist. His rival, Thomas Jefferson, was accused of being a French sympathizer at a time when foreign entanglements were viewed with particular alarm.

But negative campaigning acquired new intensity and broader reach when technology transferred it from partisan pamphlets to television ads. An early example of the emotional wallop a TV ad could carry came in 1964, when President Lyndon B. Johnson contrasted the images of a little girl counting flower petals with a mushroom cloud to suggest that electing Republican Barry Goldwater would increase the risk of nuclear war.

Some were reminded of that ad when Republicans alleged this year that Kerry's election would make a terrorist attack more likely. But two differences are striking. The anti-Goldwater ad was so shocking to its audience that it was pulled after only one airing. And the ad itself was nuanced compared to the frontal assaults of today: In 1964, Goldwater's name was not mentioned; in 2004, Bush and Vice President Dick Cheney themselves have implied that the world would be a more dangerous place if Kerry were elected.

During the 2002 midterm campaign, when images of terrorists were first deployed to discredit the opposition, it was a controversial tactic that drew national attention. One of the first was the 2001 ad in South Dakota by the conservative Family Research Council, which ran pictures of Daschle and Saddam Hussein and accused the senator of helping keep Hussein in power. Daschle was not even on the ballot in 2002; he was under attack because, as the leader of Senate Democrats, he was seen by conservatives as an obstacle to the Bush administration's agenda in Congress. Later, another conservative group sent a mailing that compared Daschle to Taliban sympathizer John Walker Lindh.

Now, the specter of terrorism is routinely invoked in ads and campaign rhetoric that often cast aspersions on a candidate's patriotism. Bush ads have used terrorist images to paint Kerry as a weak leader. House Speaker J. Dennis Hastert (R-Ill.) took it a step further when he said Al Qaeda leaders probably wanted Kerry to win the election. A Democratic National Committee ad, meanwhile, has accused Bush of flagging in the hunt for Bin Laden.

"It's always tempting to say the campaign you're in is the worst ever, but this time it might actually be true," said Kenneth M. Goldstein, director of the University of Wisconsin Advertising Project.

This year, he added, there is "something that's qualitatively different: You always had wacky things said by fringe groups. Now you're seeing it by mainstream groups and the candidates themselves."

Part of the negative tenor of the 2004 campaign can be traced to the proliferation of independent political groups known as 527s, named for the tax-code section that governs them. Analysts have found that ads run by the 527s and other independent organizations â€" such as the Swift Vets and POWs for Truth group that questioned Kerry's military record in Vietnam and his subsequent protests of the war â€" have been consistently more negative than the candidates' own ads.

An analysis of campaign ads from March to July by William Benoit, a professor of communications at the University of Missouri, found that 80% of TV ads run by sources other than the candidates were attack ads.

Benoit found the candidates' ads were not so consistently negative, but that Bush's spots were more attack-oriented than Kerry's at that stage of the campaign. About half of Bush's TV spots were negative, compared to 13% of Kerry's, in the March-to-July period. Jamieson said the 2004 campaign was different because candidates seemed more willing to distort the truth. She cited Bush's repeated claim that Kerry's plan to expand health insurance coverage amounted to a "government takeover of healthcare." A Bush ad said the Kerry plan involved "several massive new government agencies." However, Kerry's health plan does not call for a government takeover and it relies on a combination of existing government programs and private insurance policies for its implementation.

Kerry, for his part, stretched the truth when he suggested that Bush was to blame for the 17% increase in Medicare premiums scheduled for next year. The premium is automatically raised by a formula set in a 1997 law for which Kerry voted.

The profusion of divisive, ill-founded rhetoric has been abetted by changes in technology and the media since the last campaign. The explosion of communication on the Internet has vastly increased the opportunities for attacks through a medium that seems to prize speed over accuracy. Additionally, cut-and-thrust arguments play well to the faster-paced, more partisan cable news shows that have multiplied in recent years.

The politics of attack have also flourished because of a consensus among politicians and their consultants that "going negative" is effective.

"The public may say they don't like attack ads, but they do work," said Tony Coelho, a former Democratic congressman from Merced and party insider.

"Once you raise a question about somebody, if there's an ounce of credibility, it sticks. It's easier to believe negative things than positive things."

But Benoit argued that voters' reactions to negative campaigning depended on what kind of attack is being launched. His study of presidential campaign messages from 1948 to 2000 found that the candidates who attacked on policy grounds were more likely to be winners; those who attacked on character were more likely to be losers.

The politics of 2004 â€" on the campaign trail and off â€" is not just negative and sometimes misleading; it also has a coarse, personal edge. Bush and Kerry attacked not just each other's positions on issues, but each other's personal credibility and integrity. In the Oklahoma Senate race, Coburn has called his contest against Democratic Rep. Brad Carson a "battle between good and evil." When Cheney met a Democratic critic on the Senate floor earlier this year, he responded with an obscenity rarely heard in public dialogue. In campaigns around the country, opponents are not just criticized; they are demonized.

Some analysts see this trend stemming from a major change in the political agenda: the emergence of more social issues with a moral dimension. Such issues as abortion, school prayer and gay marriage are more likely to provoke polarized, unbridgeable disagreements than the economic and foreign policy issues that dominated in the past.

"It's one thing to say someone is wrong; it's another to say someone is immoral," said William A. Galston, a former advisor to President Clinton. "I think there once was more of a sense that politics was a competition among well-intentioned and patriotic leaders with different visions of what would serve the national interest."

Some argued that the preponderance of negative campaigning and the polarization of politics had a positive aspect â€" it is a powerful way to clarify contrasts between two candidates or the two major parties.

Nor does this year's harsh tone seem to be turning off voters. Indeed, given reports of big increases in voter registration, it may be fueling â€" not dampening â€" passion and interest in the campaign.

Still, many analysts worried about the long-term effects of the increasingly fierce quality of political discourse. They feared that with both Bush and Kerry claiming they wanted to tackle a backlog of problems that would require bipartisan solutions â€" curbing the federal budget deficit, shoring up Social Security and controlling healthcare costs â€" the political climate would hamper whoever was elected.

"At the end of this, you are going to have a president hobbled," said Eric M. Uslaner, a political scientist at the University of Maryland. "It's going to be impossible for anyone to govern once this campaign is over."

The venomous character of political campaigns and congressional debate may have another long-term consequence: driving away from public service people who do not have a stomach for that sort of combat.

Three political scientists in 2002 conducted a survey of potential candidates for the House and found that about 64% of them said that the negativism of campaign politics discouraged them from running for office.

It was not always like this. Leach, the Iowa congressman, said that in the 19th century, the Legislature in his state was packed with community leaders â€" bankers, successful farmers, prominent educators.

"Today that isn't the case," said Leach. "America has never been better-led in the arts, science and business. But leadership of the American political system is not as strong."

*

(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX)

Low blows

Many observers say this year's political season is the most negative in memory. A sampling of the attacks:

Attacks On Republicans

"The Saudi royal family. Wealthy. Powerful. Corrupt. And close Bush family friends…. Kind of makes you wonder: Are Bush and the Saudis too close for comfort?"

â€" TV ad unveiled last month by The Media Fund.

"What were war crimes in 1945 is foreign policy in 2003." â€" Text in an ad mixing images of President Bush and Adolph Hitler, posted on the Moveon.org website. The group later said the ad, one of two in an anti-Bush ad contest to use pictures of Hitler, was in poor taste and removed it from their site.

"You have a bunch of crapheads in Oklahoma City." â€" Billboard posted by the Oklahoma Democratic Party, calling attention to a quote from Tom Coburn, GOP candidate for U.S. Senate.

Attacks On Democrats

"It's absolutely essential that eight weeks from today, on Nov. 2, we make the right choice, because if we make the wrong choice, then the danger is that we'll get hit again, that we'll be hit in a way that will be devastating from the standpoint of the United States." â€" Vice President Dick Cheney, Sept. 7, at a campaign event in Iowa. Cheney later said he did not mean the country would be attacked if John F. Kerry were elected.

"Would you trust Kerry against these fanatic killers?" â€" Asked in TV ad showing images of Osama bin Laden, Sept. 11 hijacker Mohamed Atta and terrorist attacks in Russia. The ad was released last month by Progress for America Voter Fund, a 527 group.

"Banned" â€" Written over the image of a Bible in a Republican National Committee mailing last month to voters in Arkansas and West Virginia. The mailing warned that liberals wanted to ban the Bible and allow same-sex marriages.


See the article on Los Angeles Times website



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