By TIM NICKENS
© St. Petersburg Times, published April 16, 2000
There is a difference between fair comparisons and negative attacks.
Like pornography, I know negative when I see it. Defining either one to everyone's satisfaction is the tough part.
Dana Milbank's commentary from the Washington Post offers some legitimate points. As a group, journalists look for the negative more often than we should as we seek to distinguish candidates from each other. In an era in which Republicans and Democrats strive to straddle the middle, there are occasions when relatively insignificant differences or comments are blown out of proportion.
When Al Gore and Bill Bradley both vowed to improve education, cover more uninsured Americans, increase gun control and reform campaign finance laws, the issue was not what to do but how to do it and how fast. Nuances can get blown out of proportion on deadline.
Were the presidential primaries the most negative in history?
Of course not.
Overall, they were relatively tame compared with past primaries or some recent statewide races in Florida.
But don't tell me negative campaigning is a creation of the media and that consultants such as Bob Shrum and Alex Castellanos are Boy Scouts whose tactics are unfairly criticized.
One of the biggest deterrents to negative attacks are the critiques of campaign ads that the St. Petersburg Times, the Miami Herald and other newspapers began publishing in the early '90s. Those ad reviews forced candidates for statewide offices to cite sources to document their claims and reined in many politicians. That didn't stop them from distorting facts, but at least they were forced to present a case that their claims were legitimate.
Here's another news flash: When journalists describe the negative nature of campaigns, they aren't always talking about television ads.
Before the Michigan primary in February, George W. Bush and John McCain each complained about telephone calls being made to voters. A recorded message by Bush supporter Pat Robertson called McCain's campaign manager "a vicious bigot." He urged voters to "protect unborn babies and restore religious freedom once again in America," because McCain -- an abortion rights opponent -- supported campaign reforms that anti-abortion groups opposed.
Those calls were negative attacks. So were implications that Bush was an anti-Catholic bigot because he gave a speech at Bob Jones University, which has a history of intolerance toward Catholics.
What else was negative?
It was fair game for Gore to out point the differences between his proposal to provide more Americans with health coverage and Bradley's more ambitious, expensive plan. It was negative for Gore to claim the result of Bradley's proposal would be to deny health care to Americans on Medicare and the poor who rely on Medicaid. Those weren't Bradley's motivations or the intent of his plan.
Milbank cites academic studies to bolster claims that negative attacks appeal to voters and do not harm turnout at the polls.
Yes, voters like candidates to have pulses. Yes, going negative often works. Gore's campaign took off when he became more aggressive.
But there also is evidence to suggest negative attacks aren't always warmly embraced. When Bradley went negative, he upset many of his own supporters. And record numbers of voters didn't turn out for the Republican primaries in New Hampshire, South Carolina and Michigan because of negative attacks.
In New Hampshire and Michigan, voters came out because McCain portrayed himself as a different kind of politician. In South Carolina, conservatives surged to the polls to back Bush.
One of the reasons McCain ran out of gas is that he became obsessed with campaign tactics and responding to Bush's attacks. That turned off voters who were looking for a fresh candidate with a different approach.
Between now and November, the worst negative attacks won't show up on your television. They will show up in your mailbox, on your telephone, in your e-mail and on Internet Web sites. The challenge for journalists will be to catch those attacks and report them so that voters can see into the darker corners of the campaigns.
Will the Gore and Bush campaigns go beyond comparisons and engage in negative attacks?
By the time Gore gets done with Texas, we will wonder how anyone in their right minds can live there. After Bush gets done with the vice president, we will marvel how the country survived the past seven years.
There are plenty of legitimate comparisons to be made with regard to the Bush and Gore proposals for improving education, spending the surplus and protecting the environment. We'll get to those. We'll also point out when the facts and figures are distorted in negative attacks.
After all, somebody has to referee and occasionally call a foul.