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The Search for A New Political Center : New Campaign Mores Mean 'Take No Prisoners' Races

November 06, 1994|Suzanne Garment | Suzanne Garment, a contributing editor to Opinion, is a resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute. She is the author of "Scandal: The Culture of Mistrust in American Politics" (Times Books)

WASHINGTON — In the olden days of the 1970s, I worked in a couple of political campaigns. During one, I came across a piece of thrillingly derogatory information about our opponent. No, I don't re member what it was. But to give you a benchmark, in 1970 a political opponent labeled Sen. Roman Hruska a "smut peddler" for owning a piece of a drive-in movie theater that showed "Catch 22."

One night, when sitting next to my boss at a bibulous staff dinner, I whispered my story to him and asked, "Should we use it?" He paused, for he knew if we were caught, the wrath of respectable political and media opinion would descend on us.

On the other hand, it was a tight race. "Use it," he finally rasped, like the godfather ordering a hit. In the end, from a failure of nerve, I never did the deed.

Today, no political operative in the country would be so timid. The "Should we use it?" issue would be settled, because, in a campaign today, I would be head of what is now titled Opposition Research. My entire job, respectable and acknowledged, would be to dig up dirt on the other guy.

The question on my mind would be not "Should we?" but "When?" It is said that in this year's California senatorial race, the Dianne Feinstein folks waited until Mike Huffington had endorsed Proposi-tion 187 to pursue the rumors of an illegal nanny and then to serve as matchmakers between disgruntled former Huffington employees and the press. No one has suggested that the Feinstein camp should be ashamed.

But the Golden State's campaigns are positively issue-laden compared with other current races. It is not that the 1994 campaign is unprecedented in its ugliness. In 1800, presidential candidate John Adams was accused of procuring prostitutes; modern campaigns have not yet plumbed those depths. What we do see this year is an increased number of the ordinary sort of tawdry campaign charges whose use has grown steadily in the past 20 years.

Oliver L. North calls Charles S. Robb a liar in personal matters, while Robb calls North a liar in political matters; one will be the next senator from Virginia. In Maryland, Sen. Paul S. Sarbanes' main radio ad against William E. Brock III is a list of charges covering everything from tax evasion to Brock's past attendance record in Congress. In this year's saddest case, Sen. Edward M. Kennedy, whose brother had to fight religious bigotry in the 1960 presidential race, went after Republican opponent Mitt Romney for being a Mormon.

The politicians producing this stuff are, as a class, not known for their scruples. But they are not known for craziness, either. If they have gone more negative, it is because they think people are more likely to be influenced by such rhetoric. And they are right. We see nasty ads because voters are in a nasty mood, not just mistrustful, but filled with disgust and thinking Washington is their enemy.

If you are on the left, you explain this sour attitude by pointing to Watergate and to the years of Ronald Reagan's telling us government is the problem. If you lean right, you will cite the expensive federal social programs that failed to deliver on their promises; you will add that well before Reagan, liberal opinion-makers created an adversary culture on the premise that politicians are corrupted by special interests and we should mistrust any word emerging from an official.

What is indisputable is that at the end of the 1980s, the Cold War ended. In 1992, voters seemed to react to this change by electing President Bill Clinton to focus on domestic policy. In hindsight, it seems more accurate to say that the end of Soviet power removed many people's chief reason for thinking the federal government a necessity in their lives. You are less disposed to give government the benefit of the doubt when you no longer think you need it to protect you against nuclear weapons aimed at your head.

Yet, current campaign rhetoric is not just an appeal to some kind of end-of-the-war insouciance toward government. The people who make the ads clearly think voters want something angrier and more self-righteous. The words lie , liar and lying , formerly campaign weapons of last resort, are now commonplace. There is no longer any debate about whether or not a politician's private life is "fair game" for opponents--everything is on the table.

This escalation can only be understood as the result of 20 years of post-Watergate politics, in which accusations of moral turpitude became everyday partisan tools used by both parties.

Some of the charges were about money; others concerned sexual conduct. But political people and citizens alike became accustomed to a highly symbolic, moralistic language in discussing politicians and public officials.

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