PCL: Political Communication Lab, Stanford University
PCL: Political Communication Lab, Stanford University
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A Good Dirty Fight

New York Times

Paul Begala
Nov 4, 2004

As we sift through the results of Campaign 2004, let us pause to praise negative campaigning. Bemoaning attack politics is, of course, de rigueur for All the Right People. When President Bush began his fusillade against John Kerry in May, Prof. Darrell West of Brown University predicted "the most negative campaign ever," and many analysts agreed.

President Bush hammered Senator Kerry as unprincipled, uncertain, unsteady. "He looks French," sniffed Commerce Secretary Don Evans.

Persuaded by focus groups that swing voters don't like negatives, the Kerry campaign initially turned the other cheek. During the Democratic National Convention, Kerry strategists scrubbed every speech, excising attacks on President Bush. They even complained that former President Jimmy Carter was too anti-Bush; when you think a Nobel Peace Prize winner is too mean, you're really running a positive campaign. The Kerry camp found itself trailing by double digits after the Republican National Convention in September.

Then, spurred by a conversation with former President Bill Clinton, Mr. Kerry went on the offensive. He accused the president of dishonesty and incompetence in the prosecution of the Iraq war. Tough stuff, that, and the race was soon a dead heat.

And so it went - Republicans ran ads with wolves; Democrats countered with an ostrich. There was a brief moment last week when both men pledged not to politicize the Osama bin Laden tape. Then they both did exactly the opposite - with Mr. Bush asserting the tape was a reminder that America could ill afford Kerryesque vacillation in the face of evil, and Mr. Kerry countering that the only reason Mr. bin Laden was making videotapes was that Mr. Bush had "outsourced" his capture to Afghan warlords.

After such a brutal campaign, one would expect voters to be turned off. Indeed, the political scientists Shanto Iyengar and Stephen Ansolabehere have written that negative campaigning "may diminish the power of civic duty and may undermine the legitimacy of the entire electoral process."

But to the surprise of the handwringers, the viciousness of the campaign inspired voters to stand in line for hours in a rare display of the power of civic duty. And Mr. Bush's relentlessly negative campaign earned him the ultimate legitimacy - a solid majority of the vote in a high-turnout election.

To be sure, all negative campaigning is not created equal. Criticisms of ideas and issues are more successful than personal attacks on character. Case in point: when Republican Congressional candidates attacked Democrats relentlessly on issues - in their Contract With America campaign of 1994 - they won handily. But after the relentless assault on President Clinton's character over the next two years, he became the first president in more than a century to gain Congressional seats in the sixth year of his presidency.

Americans are tough, and we expect our politicians to be tough. Say what you will about President Bush and Senator Kerry, but you must admit they're tough guys who ran tough campaigns. And the voters rewarded their negativity by turning out in droves.

Paul Begala, co-host of CNN's "Crossfire" and a former aide to President Bill Clinton, is a professor at the Public Policy Institute of Georgetown University.