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.
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
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
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
"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
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
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
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
"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
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
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
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
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
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
(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX)
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
friendsâ€¦. Kind of makes you wonder:
Are Bush and the Saudis too close for comfort?"
â€" TV ad unveiled last month by The Media
"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
"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
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