HOWARD DEAN'S "ATTACK AD" or QUIT YOUR WHINING
Howard Dean, once a fixture on this blog in those long-ago days before the Rise of the Machine (and likely to become one again now that Judgment Day has passed), has two new advertisments playing in Iowa and New Hampshire this week, and now everyone is whining that Dean has "gone negative." The objections center on two words that appear in each ad. Here's the relevant text of his NH ad, spoken by Dean himself, and let's see if you can spot which they are.
A hundred and thirty thousand troops in Iraq, with no end in sight and a price tag that goes up daily and the best my opponents can do is ask questions today that they should have asked before they supported the war. I opposed the war...
To the untrained eye, it might be hard to see. But the two offending words were "my opponents." Yes, just the mention that one is in a race against other candidates is "negative." (The Iowa ad is about health care, but goes about the same. Also, what's snipped is mostly puffery by Dean about how he'll take back the country.) John Kerry
, who at this date has revealed himself to be both for and
against the war, issued the following statement almost immediately:
We need to remember that the enemy here is George Bush, not each other.
And Jim Jordan
, a campaign manager for... Kerry! had this to say:
No one here can remember any Democratic candidate going up with negative ads in October. It's surprising, even from a candidate who's been personally on the attack for many months, and it strongly implies that his staff is seeing something alarming in their polling.
So Howard Dean notes that his fellow Democrat presidential candidates -- none of whom are named in the ad -- held a different position on the war, and this is apparently a problem. Kerry criticizes Dean for pointing this out, and Jordan attacks Dean as an attacker. Since the ad debuted Wednesday, other candidates and pundits have fired back, all criticizing Dean. Dennis Kucinich
is demanding free air time
if Dean's ads aren't taken off the air because, Kucinich reminds us, he was always anti-war, too. Quoth Kucinich:
I was the leader in the House opposition to the war effort. This ad does damage to me.
Hey! Kucinich just accused Dean of "damaging" him! That's way more negative than what Dean said, right? So what gives?
Well, first of all, they're all damn hypocrites. Before and during every televised debate, each candidate's campaign fires off round after round of press releases attacking the other candidates' positions on everything from Medicare to tax policy and, of course, the war. On a daily basis, all the candidates' henchmen offer snide comments about the other candidates to reporters on the other end of the phone. (Lieberman's press secretary, Jano Cabrera, has made an art of this.) Plus, they all forward potentially damaging news articles about the others to any media outlet with an email address or fax machine.
What gives is, there's a double-standard accepted by the political media treating differently those attacks vocalized by a candidate and those attacks vocalized by a candidate's staff (which are of course implicitly authorized by the candidate). Also, advertisements are treated differently than individual statements, including antagonistic comments by the candidates themselves (though those usually draw sharp responses). There's some rationale to this, as most TV ads reach more people than most newspaper columns. But if intent matters, then there is no difference. Everyone goes negative some of the time.
So who went negative first? Hard to say. Impossible at this point, because the campaign unofficially began the day after Al Gore finally conceded in December of 2001, so it's been about two years since the race got underway, and in some cases, even before. There never was a "positive" campaign. And if Dean has just gone negative, then what do you call it when someone eventually runs ads bashing Dean for having been endorsed by the NRA? That's negative -- something Dean didn't exactly have control over, and which is largely irrelevant given the issues most important to the 2004 election (viz., terrorism and the economy).
Every candidate went negative long before the "official" post-Labor Day start of the campaign (which is to say, not), every candidate has gone "negative" by doing oppo -- opposition research -- and hell, given the response to Dean's ad, one could say they'd all gone negative the moment they acknowledged that they had rivals for the nomination.
Memo to all current and future candidates: Quit your whining. If you want to fight back, fight back, but make sure to project yourself as calm and rational when doing so. Or if you think you can get away with it, take a page from President Bush and politely decline to comment. But seriously -- quit your whining.
P.S. Armed Prophet would be badly in error if I did not point out that Dick Gephardt apparently does grasp this point. The above comments therefore do not apply to him. Showing up on "Fox & Friends" this morning, he said of the ads:
They're legitimate debates about issues. ... I'm happy to have this debate with him and the other candidates. This is what you do in elections.
Exactly! Kudos to him for not being as thin-skinned as Kerry. Especially considering that Gephardt is threatened by Dean in Iowa like Kerry is in New Hampshire. Gephardt has always struck me as a sensible man, and for grasping this point, he deserves some credit. Unfortunately, he doesn't grasp the value of NAFTA
or of free trade in general. So don't take this as an endorsement.
P.P.S. In a campaign almost as closely followed as this one, Arnold Schwarzenegger aired negative television commercials against Gray Davis in the final weeks of the recall campaign, even though he pledged not to during one of his early press conferences. Why all the furor over Dean, but not Ahnuld? One reason might be that most of the state, even those who voted against the recall, already agreed that Davis had horribly bungled stae matters. Another may be Schwarzenegger's "teflon," proven a week later when the sexual harassment allegations against him didn't stick. Probably there are other reasons as well. But the selective outrage on the part of the media -- here's a New York Times headline from Thursday: "In New Ads, Dean Becomes First in Campaign to Attack Fellow Democrats" -- is strange. Especially curious because Arnold ran and Dean is running, the "outsider." The NY Times ran no such articles about Schwarzeneggger. So why the disparity?
P.P.P.S. Is it only because Dean is not a Republican that Kerry has not yet accused the former governor of impugning his patriotism?