WASHINGTON — Among the many sins of the 1988 presidential contest, perhaps the worst is the way the good name of negative campaigning has been besmirched. The hands of our most distinguished commentators have been wrung like mops, the aches in their bellies allowed full voice, all in protest against the tenor of discourse between George Bush and Michael S. Dukakis.
This orchestra of gnashed teeth has been tuned to a fundamental aesthetic judgement that negative campaigning is, of itself, bad. But negativism isn't the problem. Stupidity is--and by not differentiating between a stupid campaign and a negative one, we're heading toward a judgment that the moment a candidate goes negative, he's created a breach in the social order. Negative campaigning's ubiquitous byproduct, the 30-second negative spot, will soon unfairly take on the leper's air, or at least the kind of opprobrium reserved for, say, smoking in public.
There are three reasons why negative campaigning is a mighty good thing. To begin with: history. U.S. presidential campaigns since the early 19th Century have often been nasty and negative affairs. Second, there is an intrinsic regulator to negative campaigning: In order to work, and not create a backlash, a negative attack must be truthful, fair and, in many cases, delivered with mitigating humor to add levity to what often seems an interminable campaign. Most important, negative campaigning is effective.
Stupidity, however, is a different matter--and that's where aesthetic complaints should be leveled. Legitimate comparisons between the candidates' records and positions are condemned because they're delivered in a negative tone. What should be condemned is the stupidity with which many of these attacks, verbal and visual, have been delivered.
The metaphors of Campaign '88--drowned rubber ducks, rotting fish heads and Jane Fonda's naval--are dumb, pure and simple, as are rumbles in tanks and trips to flag factories. But many commentators can't distinguish between legitimate symbolism and the sophomoric level of this kind of dialogue. By not differentiating between negative campaigning and stupidity, many who complain about the former are guilty of the latter.
Legitimate negative campaigning has driven the poll numbers of this race, right up to the debate.
In a May 16 New York Times/CBS poll, Dukakis led Bush by 10 points, 49% to 39%. Worse for the vice president, his negatives were high--35% of those polled viewed him negatively, compared with 33% favorable. Dukakis, on the other hand, having swept through the New York primary splattered by none of its carnage, had a favorable rating of 38%, his negatives a comfortable 14%. At that time, he'd been body-slamming the political pinball machine, ringing up points by going after the Bush-Noreiga connection, the Iran-Contra affair and other negative but, to the electorate, legitimate issues. He was the paradigm of the political tabula rasa: a blank projection screen on which liberals and conservatives alike viewed him in their image. For Bush to have allowed the governor of Massachusetts to have painted in his own portrait would have been fatal.
In June, Bush, and through him, America, became acquainted with Willie Horton, the furloughed Massachusetts prisoner whose rampage on a weekend pass provided the GOP with sufficient paint to daub in Dukakis' likeness. The result was Dukakis heading to Atlanta with his lead cut and his negatives up. On July 11, the New York Times/CBS poll showed Dukakis' favorables down from 38% to 28%, and his negatives up from 14% to 21%.
The Bush attack worked and, though not exactly pretty, it was legitimate. Those who imagine that presidential politics ought to have Lincoln debating Douglas each quadrennial were bound to have their love of Dukakis and Bush permanently qualified. But what Bush did was well within the tradition of political hardball; so was Dukakis' implication that Bush and the ayatollah were pen pals.
After the Democratic Convention, the Duke widened his lead to 17 points, his favorables stretching heavenward: 38% to 19%. Bush's negatives remained high, and conventional wisdom had it that this was his penance for having "gone negative"--though the suspicion remains that Ann Richards and others who opened the bomb bays to drop a ton of ridicule on Bush had their desired effect.
Bush then let loose on Dukakis for being a tenderfoot on foreign policy, for his flip-flop on strategic issues and his fealty, or lack of, to every red-blooded American's daily recitation of the Pledge of Allegiance. Here's where alarums about sins of negative campaigning hit full bay--and the point was missed.