Politics & Policy

Embrace the Negative

You can't win without contrast.

Editor’s note: This column is available exclusively through United Media. For permission to reprint or excerpt this copyrighted material, please contact: Carmen Puello at cpuello@unitedmedia.com.

The old saw, “If you don’t have anything nice to say, don’t say anything at all” works as motherly advice, as a pithy rule of thumb to aid character formation. But it fails spectacularly as a guiding political strategy for presidential campaigns.

As Aaron Tippin sings in that most red, white, and blue of music — country — “You’ve got to stand for something or you’ll fall for anything. You’ve got to be your own man, not a puppet on a string.”

#ad#According to a recent Wall Street Journal/NBC News poll, “Nearly three in 10 voters, 29%, pointed to McCain as the candidate running a negative campaign, compared to just 5% who said Obama is running a negative campaign.” Prevailing wisdom would label this perception a minus for Big Mac. But it shouldn’t. Consider this example from the recent past.

During the Republican primary season earlier this year, former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney weathered heavy criticism for daring to run ads that harshly contrasted his attributes with the perceived failings of a major opponent, Mike Huckabee. His first such ad, which ran in Iowa in December, described Romney and Huckabee as “two good family men,” both pro-life and both in favor of keeping marriage between a man and a woman. But the similarities ended there. The ad continued: Mitt Romney stood up and vetoed in-state tuition for illegal aliens, opposed driver’s licenses for illegals. Mike Huckabee? Supported in-state tuition benefits for illegal immigrants. Huckabee even supported taxpayer-funded scholarships for illegal aliens.”

What, pray tell, is wrong with an ad like that? It’s decent and takes a hard look at the respective records — exactly how a candidate should clarify the differences between himself and an opponent.

Despite some initial dithering, Huckabee eventually fired back, running an ad that accused Romney of “dishonesty.” Among other things, the ad aimed to present Romney as something other than a law-and-order executive. As the Annenberg Political Factcheck Web site pointed out, though, that portrayal was a bit misleading: “The ad says Romney’s record as governor of Massachusetts includes ‘no executions.’ That’s true, but the reason is that Massachusetts doesn’t have a death penalty. Furthermore, Romney tried and failed to get the death penalty reinstated.”

The fact of the matter is that Huckabee wanted to win and he knew the power that negative ads command – although in his case, they stretched the truth. The pastor in him wanted to say or thought he should say, “negative is bad.” But in his political heart he knew what was right for his cause.

But it is more than that; politics cannot always center on the quest for popular celebrity. Barack Obama learns this the hard way whenever he’s made to talk about real political issues. John McCain should make him do it more often. Calling attention to the many stark contrasts between himself and his opponent often brings out the best in McCain. I don’t know if involving Paris Hilton — as the McCain campaign recently did to the delight of late-night pundits everywhere — is always the answer, but if voters don’t know what you support and oppose, and how you are different from your opponent, they’ve got no good reason to vote for you and against him. Without facts, both positive and negative, there is no real choice.

So McCain should continue to make ads about policy, about troop-funding and taxing and spending. The McCain campaign should make clear the differences between the Arizona senator and Obama. (On abortion, specifically: Obama wouldn’t oppose infanticide in the Illinois state senate.) McCain should continue to use humor, to be a happy warrior, even as he forthrightly criticizes Obama. He should seek to drive home the biggest difference between the candidates: their stances on the unpopular war in Iraq. The so-called “maverick” McCain should be bold enough to be negative. And then voters will know the truth. And that’s always a positive.

— Kathryn Jean Lopez is the editor of National Review Online.

© 2008, Newspaper Enterprise Assn.

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