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CAPITOL JOURNAL

Winning the Battle and Losing the War

November 07, 1994|GEORGE SKELTON

SACRAMENTO — This is not an election campaign that most of the combatants--consultants or candidates--will want to tell their mothers or grandchildren about, if they're truthful.

Of course, judging by the last few weeks, they'll feel no obligation toward the truth.

What did you do in the 1994 election, grandpa? Ah, er, I was tending bar in a bordello then.

It has been especially ugly this year. Some candidates have had the temerity to talk about moral values. But for most, the only value that counts is victory. The sole ethic recognized by too many consultants and their clients is that the end justifies any legal means.

Distortions? Lies? They're all part of the blood sport. So what if the public becomes even more cynical, grumpy with government and distrustful of democracy? There are no boundaries except for the limits of voter gullibility. It's fair to whip away at anybody or anything as long as blood flows and there's no backlash.

Some recent TV ads have been more odious than others, including:

* Rep. Mike Huffington's ad claiming that the "Associated Press now proves (Sen. Dianne) Feinstein lied--flat out lied" about an immigrant housekeeper. The flat-out lie is Huffington's ad. The AP never pretended to prove anything; it merely distributed an inaccurate story published by striking San Francisco newspaper staffers. The story later was corrected, but Huffington's ad was not.

* Assemblyman Tom Umberg's vicious ad suggesting that Atty. Gen. Dan Lungren was partly to blame for the murder of 12-year-old Polly Klaas. Umberg's cheap shot reasoning is that Lungren's office did not have a fancy database on parolees.

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After $90 million worth of attack ads on television, it is no wonder there's a strong dislike for each of the major candidates. This is just their problem for now. But it will become society's problem when the winners later try to govern.

The nasty ads "destroy not only the losers but the winners," notes Susan Estrich, a USC law professor who managed Michael Dukakis' 1988 presidential race. "Even if (Gov.) Pete Wilson wins, a lot of people are going to think he's a scumbag. He'll have no voter mandate. He won't go back into office with strong popular support. It will be hard for him to get anything done."

Attorney Steven A. Merksamer, who was chief of staff for ex-Gov. George Deukmejian, says "the politicians have allowed these elections to get out of control. When they spend years bashing each other, saying 'you're a liar and corrupt and dishonest,' what's the public going to think? That they're all liars and corrupt and dishonest.

"That's helped to create an extremely angry electorate. This feeds on itself. Negative ads is too charitable a way to describe it. It's just gutter politics."

To the active political pro, such criticism seems unrealistic and Pollyannaish. No election ever was won with a clean campaigning seal, they'll tell you. Voters buy the dirt. They aren't moved by positive ads.

It would be inspiring, however, to watch some major candidate spurn the negative and stick to the positive, discussing real problems and telling voters honestly where they stand. A candidate of genuine principle who placed virtue above victory. Somebody who wanted to look the grandkids in the eye.

It's conceivable the pros are wrong. The voters might even warm up to such a candidate.

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But enough of this. Now is when the voters get to take back the political process from the politicians.

They should channel surf past the TV air wars and junk all partisan political mail. If people can chuck that trash--and focus on the official ballot pamphlet, impartial election guides and their own gut instincts--they'll find significant differences between candidates and watershed decisions to be made on landmark ballot measures.

One might not realize it from her campaign--which mostly has been uninspiring--but as governor, Treasurer Kathleen Brown would be better for education and the environment than Wilson. The incumbent, however, would be closer to business and less apt to raise taxes.

The contrast could not be sharper between Feinstein and Huffington. Feinstein believes in government and delivering for her state; Huffington detests government and preaches volunteerism.

Proposition 187, the most polarizing initiative in three decades, has many voters in a quandary. These are not bigots, but citizens who understand that illegal immigration is just that--illegal--and object to their tax dollars being spent on people who don't play by the rules. Still, they worry about children and social consequences.

Indeed, this has been one of the most exciting California elections in years. That's partly because of the blood and bunk. But it's also because races are tight and so much is at stake. People will really have to be angry not to vote.

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