It’s quite popular to condemn negative advertising. It’s a great applause line on the stump.
Newark, N.J., Mayor Cory Booker recently got front-page headlines by condemning Obama’s ads about Mitt Romney and Bain Capital — until he had to take his comments back because, I would guess, the Republicans were using them as attack lines against the President. President Obama defended his negative ads, saying they are about Romney’s character and fair game. Romney started his own negative ads, though he quickly repudiated a proposed negative campaign against Obama that would have focused on the controversial Rev. Jeremiah Wright. And everyone condemned it, though it appears it was never even made and certainly never ran. That’s the first time I’ve seen just thinking about running negative ads condemned.
It was Lyndon Johnson who ran the Daisy ad against Barry Goldwater in 1964, but it’s the Republicans who popularized negative ads by using them broadly under Lee Atwater. To be fair, both sides use them now, but usually Republicans take the hit for being more negative. In 1996, we ran mostly negative or comparative ads for President Clinton while Bob Dole ran mostly positive ads, but 2-to-1, voters thought we were positive and the Republicans negative. We began all our negative ads with the phrase: “Another negative ad from the Republicans …”
So I’ll say something unpopular. Negative ads are by and large good for our democracy. And when they are not — when they overreach unfairly, they boomerang and the people who ran them take a well-deserved hit. But when they focus us on something important — like who would make a better Commander in Chief, who would fix the economy or when they bring up past events that need a real vetting — they do a service. They don’t let politicians off the hook and hold them accountable for their past actions.
Take the negative ads run against Newt Gingrich in Iowa. Without them, Romney might well have lost because Gingrich was not about to bring up any of the ethics charges against him or any of the outrageous stuff he has done and said in the past. He’s a good debater, and by that alone, a lot of people might have voted for him.
Good negative ads stick to the facts and raise legitimate questions — and they often force opponents to respond and talk about subjects they would just as soon avoid. (The negative ads I hate are the ones that try to use a vote on an omnibus bill with a poison-pill clause to try to depict someone as against something they are really for — let’s question people’s real views, not fabricate straw men.) Romney is going to have to defend his record at all his jobs just as President Obama is going to have to defend his record as President. Who will do a better job in the future is often defined by who did a worse job in the past.
Interestingly, Mexico just banned negative ads. One of the earliest campaigns I worked for in Venezuela in 1978 used the simple slogan “Ya basta,” or “Enough,” and it put the incumbent party out of office. Usually incumbents don’t like negative ads and would prefer to be insulated from them because in most countries they have a big advantage. But our democracy was founded on a simple principle — err on the side of free political speech. It’s not perfect, and there are excesses that have to be watched, but if you broadly regulate it, you are sure in the long run to have more problems. This is the most educated and sophisticated electorate in history, aided by an active blogosphere and full-bore social media. We have to trust them to sort out a distorted ad from one that rightly makes a difference.
So yes, get ready for a negative political season. Of course, I want Obama and Romney to define what they are going to do if they get elected, but I also want every promise they make to be subjected to the really hard questions posed by pointed advertising. And let the voters — and not political censors — be the judge. That’s the whole point anyway.