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Watching the remaining Republicans go at it Tuesday night confirmed
for me that one of the worst things to happen to American politics in
recent years (yes, I know, there are plenty of candidates) has been the
fixation of so many of the media and the goo-goos on the supposed horror
of “negative” campaigning. Could any collection of nasty personal
insults have been more nauseating than the crocodile tears shed by Bush
and McCain over how deeply hurt they were by timid little jabs from the
other that barely landed? Not to mention the pointless arguments over
who went negative first.

I hope I’m not so naïve as to expect serious, detailed discussion of
the issues backed by a profound understanding of and reference to an
underlying political philosophy, especially this year. After all, the
United States faces few if any severe challenges other than the
accelerating growth of the central government. You can hardly expect
those who semi-seriously think they have a chance to lead that
government to blaze a government-trimming trail. Most of the Beltway
media support government growth, and apparently few Americans are as
exercised about the problem as I am. And by and large it takes something
resembling a crisis for most Americans, especially the ruling class, to
take first principles seriously.

So with prosperity (driven more by the ongoing high-tech revolution
than by government policies, which is a good thing), no Americans being
killed in foreign wars (although too many are stationed overseas in
long-term, open-ended commitments to trouble spots that could blow up)
and a feeling of well-being tinged only slightly by uneasiness, it’s not
surprising that few Americans want to hear profundity from politicians
– and the politicians are obliging them. If the relative prosperity
continues, politicians may even be able to revert to their normal role
in a healthy society, which, as H.L. Mencken pointed out back in the
1920s, is to provide low-brow entertainment to those, like me, who are
inclined to be amused or fascinated by their fulminations.

To be sure, the sideshow is enormously expensive, even when compared
to Hollywood big-budget busts like “Waterworld.” But the likelihood of
reducing the size of government significantly through the political
process is fairly low, so we might as well enjoy the show (which we can
do if we interpret yelling at stupidities and being tempted to throw
shoes at the TV set as a perverse form of enjoyment).

But if there’s to be a good show for the proles, there has to be
negative campaigning. Politics without negative campaigning is like a
strip tease without a G-string.

The other main problem with the fixation on negative campaigning as
the quintessential sin is that what too many of the goo-goos define as
negative campaigning turns out to be the only way little shreds of
actual information ever get introduced into the political process.

Investigating one’s opponent’s background in search of skeletons and
inconsistencies, then buying an ad to let the voters know about them,
can be a dishonest and lowdown proposition, depending on how the
information is presented. But it can also introduce information many
voters would like to know about. And since most of the mass media do
little or no investigating of political candidates, especially of their
flavors of the month, it is often the only way such information gets
out.

It is probably significant that it was the online magazine Salon.com,
for example, that broke the story that McCain comes from a family that
held slaves before the civil war. I don’t think the issue is especially
significant (how can anyone reasonably be held accountable for what his
or her ancestors did 140 years ago?), but it is an interesting piece of
information that none of the “mainstream” press thought to look into, in
part because so many are involved in a (probably) short-term love affair
with John McCain. The emergence of the New Media has been a boon to the
entertainment quotient in politics.

Professional journalism groups constantly wring their hands about
political reporting that concentrates on the horse-race aspects and the
arcana of insider moves by consultants, holding conferences and symposia
and promising to do better next time. One of the more charming if
infuriating aspects of my business is that its practitioners are
endlessly navel-gazing, wondering why people don’t like or trust them,
and gazing at their toes instead of their navels. Newsrooms constantly
seek ethnic diversity in the newsroom, for example, and never deign to
consider or examine the lack of ideological diversity, which is the real
reason so many people don’t trust them.

But then few institutions (or people) are capable of sustained bouts
of honest self-examination. I prefer to view the oddities of the media,
like the oddities of politicians, as a source of amusement rather than
outrage. Why should I elevate my blood pressure because others are
hypocrites or incompetents? Which is not to say that healthy outrage
can’t be a source of enjoyment or release.

The fact is, however, that pointing out that an opponent has an
inconsistent voting record, or has changed or shaved his positions over
the years as political fashions (or important constituencies) have
changed, is almost always derided as “going negative” or “going for the
jugular.” I think it should be viewed as normal and expected. Observers,
of course, will need mental filters, experience and independent
knowledge to learn to extract the nugget of truth from the sluice of
insult and hyperbole candidates typically present, but what’s wrong with
expecting citizens to have or develop a degree of discernment? We can’t
prevent those without discernment from voting, of course, but perhaps a
little social pressure could be effective here.

As even the hand-wringers acknowledge, politicians go negative
because it’s effective — not always, and not for every politician (it
seems to have backfired on McCain lately, even as it seemed to boost
Bill Bradley temporarily), but often enough that it’s unlikely to
disappear. Pundits are fond of warning candidates that they’ll lose
credibility if they go negative, then wondering out loud if they’re
tough enough to stay the course. The media claim they hate it, but in
fact they love negative campaigning. And the people may not love it, but
they expect it and are capable of sending signals if it goes too far.

Some say it would be preferable, of course, if politicians used the
tools of negative campaigning to expose their opponents’ faulty
philosophies and shaky records rather than for personal attacks. I would
love to see Bill Bradley and Al Gore actually discuss how much each one
would like to expand government and in what areas, rather than trading
half-baked accusations that the other wants to starve oldsters and
destroy Medicare. But insofar as the two might be just bright enough to
discern dimly that a discussion of philosophy might demonstrate the
emptiness and vacuity of both parties, trading half-baked charges is
better than nothing, and perhaps more revealing to listeners.

Since few politicians have the capacity or the inclination for
sustained philosophical discussion, mutual mudslinging is probably the
best we can expect. But let it at least be mudslinging that has some dim
relationship to issues and character rather than those thoroughly empty
“you started first” accusations (let alone the crocodile-tear whining)
about negative campaigning that Dubya and McCain traded on Tuesday
night.

A footnote: I haven’t been a big fan of Alan Keyes’ campaign
perpetual this year. But I’m glad he was there Tuesday night to provide
the only notes of relative honesty, levity and serious discussion of the
evening. The fact that the mainstream media — Ted Koppel on “Nightline”
that night viewed him as a distraction from the main event of two
lightweight buffoons going at each other — dismiss him and want him out
of there as quickly as possible makes me want him to stay in till the
bitter end.

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