Of Negativity

Certain signs of the season have arisen. For those who watch politics, they are as regular as clockwork and trumpet the start of a glorious time of political passion and intrapartisan fistfights.

Iowa is behind us. There has been an upset. The election-year state of the union address has been articulated. Candidates have dropped out and thrown support to the seeming frontrunner. Some campaigns have something called “momentum.” In New Hampshire, the obligatory “we reporters are cold, but the candidates are still campaigning” stories have all been filed.

And, hand wringing has begun. Political observers say that the campaigns are beginning to “go negative.” Governor Dean blames his loss in Iowa on such attacks, calling himself a “pin cushion,” the result of his erstwhile frontrunner status. Now he vows to fight all the harder. Senator Edwards apparently did so well because of his basically positive, compassionate style. And, General Wesley Clark’s campaign has gotten New York Times scrutiny for his use of opposition research on opponents.

It is only a matter of time before one candidate takes the step of proposing a “pledge” to forswear all “negative ads.” Having myself spent many election cycles promoting such pledges, I view this likelihood with mixed feelings. On the one hand, anything that draws attention to unfair campaigning as an issue must be counted a good thing. Modern campaigns have metastasized into creatures that only serve to remind people why they hate politics. On the other hand, there is a pernicious misunderstanding about so-called negative ads. The result is a sense that politics must always be a negative sport, filled with vitriol and personal attacks.

The problem lies with the definition of “negative.” Most political insiders use the word to mean “anything critical of an opponent.” But most people at home, in their living rooms, take the word to mean “unfair.” That opens the door to all manner of foolishness. Here’s an example: One candidate says that his opponent takes campaign contributions from Big Oil. That candidate calls such an attack “going negative.” Because it actually is negative in the sense that it’s “critical,” news items run about the negative attack. People at home are left with the idea that the overall campaign has devolved into personal and unfair attacks, while in fact the question of campaign contributions is a fair issue to discuss.

A far better way to characterize the kind of campaigning that drives a stake into the heart of civic life, is instead to talk about “unfair attacks.” These are the irresponsible, dishonest statements and actions that voters loathe. But what does this mean? What is OK, and what isn’t?

In the most recent Civic Values Survey (a bipartisan poll on political attitudes conducted for the Institute for Global Ethics), when asked about what sorts of criticisms are fair or unfair, Americans say it is fair to criticize an opponent for:

* An opponent’s voting record (68% say this is fair)

* Criticizing a candidate for talking one way and voting another (71%)

* An opponent’s business practices (53%)

* Criticizing an opponent for accepting contributions from special interest groups (57%)

* Criticizing an opponent for not paying taxes on time (61%)

And they say it is unfair to criticize an opponent for:

* Criticizing the actions of an opponent’s family (89% say this is unfair)

* Past troubles such as alcoholism or marijuana use (69%)

* Marital infidelity (57%)

* Past personal financial problems (81%)

* Financing your campaign yourself (76%)

Those who say any statement critical of the opposition is to be avoided are wrong — Americans do not want nice politics, nor do they deserve the insipid debate that it would engender. They want and deserve hard-hitting arguments between real candidates about issues that matter. And, they are very clear about what issues matter and which ones don’t. The poll referred to above is from 2002, but it was taken at two-year intervals frequently up to that time — and the findings remained stable.

Candidates, take heed and take heart: you can criticize your opponents.

And journalists, take note: While the gloves may well have come off and criticism between campaigns has begun, it is by no means the beginning of the end. The candidates are in general talking — arguing — about things that matter.

Just as Americans want.

Of Money and Politics in Ohio

The highest court in the land late last year dealt a win to campaign finance reform, holding up most every major provision of the Bipartisan Campaign Reform Act. This was news worth popping champagne corks over. But, it will not clean up politics in all of the ways its proponents have claimed. The reason? It only cleans up money. Election campaigns are still as free as ever to be nasty, brutish, poll-driven affairs in which competing political juggernauts scramble to strike deeper fear into the political center about the disastrous character of the opponents.

The BCRA has taken significant steps to clean up the stench of legalized bribery that permeates campaigns today. Supporters say it will open the door to healing the chasm that now exists between citizens and government, across which each side views the other with suspicion and loathing. But, that view is based on a narrow notion of who citizens are and why they are so mistrustful. Money’s part of it, but by no means the only part.

Ohio has long been a home for a groundbreaking effort to encourage political candidates to take a higher road in their campaigns. Spearheaded by the nonprofit, nonpartisan Institute for Global Ethics and led in-state by Ohio Citizen Action and a bipartisan advisory council, since 1998 the Project on Campaign Conduct has worked directly with Congressional candidates to negotiate mutual codes of conduct and get them to agree to abide by them. Toledo was also at the forefront of this effort — ever since the Lucas County Clean Campaign Committee formed while the mayoral race between Ray Kest and Jack Ford was at its peak of nastiness. What the Project learned over three election cycles of work is that, while money plays a major part in the problem, citizens are far more turned off by the way campaigns are conducted, not how they are funded.

Repeated polling throughout the state and across the nation confirms this. In the most recent national Civic Values Survey, a bipartisan poll designed to probe the public’s attitudes toward how campaigns are waged, by far the greatest concern that citizens had was about candidates’ honesty and integrity. Twenty six percent said this was their chief concern, with nineteen percent most concerned about money issues. Another eight percent were concerned about backstabbing, negative election campaigns.

That’s across the nation. In Ohio, there is similar concern, and it’s growing. Over a two year period (from 1998 to 2000), the percentage of Ohioans who said that negative, attack-oriented campaigns are damaging democracy went from thirty seven percent to fifty percent.

What is needed is the same sort of diligence among America’s civic leaders that finally pushed BCRA onto the public agenda and into law. America’s civic leaders need to stand up and demand a better quality of campaign. They need to begin to encourage citizens to ask: “How is my candidate running?” in addition to “What are my candidate’s stands on issues?” Citizens are ready for this true civic leadership, but remain convinced that their own small voices cannot make a difference in the face of the way campaigns are conducted today. Seventy one percent of Americans say that elected officials have “a different set of values from me.” Civic leaders can light the way for ordinary American citizens to truly take back politics.

Codes of conduct are a place to start. But there are other things that can be done, too. Civic groups holding candidate forums can ask different questions, ones that focus on honesty, respect for opponents and citizens, and fairness. Organizations that endorse candidates can withhold endorsements when candidates go too strongly negative.

It is not a politics of politeness that people crave. People understand that there must be argument in politics, because the issues are so important. But there is argument, and there is name calling. It is name calling that has so turned off Americans and Ohioans, not political argument.

When all is said and done, I am certain BCRA will have been a significant step forward. But it will not erase all of the problems with politics today, and it will not produce a suddenly-engaged electorate. America’s civic leaders — the ones who set the conditions for BCRA’s passage through phone-calls, organizing, and tireless work — have a new task before them. Let us hope they bring the same energy to this one for, if they do, we will all benefit and we may yet develop a democracy in which we can take deserved pride.