A Nasty Campaign

Roundup: Media's Take

Elisabeth Bumiller, in the NYT (March 14, 2004):

The 2004 presidential campaign has opened with a snarl.

President Bush and Senator John Kerry, two gentlemen from Yale, wasted no time attacking each other eight months before the election. Last week alone, Mr. Kerry called Republicans" crooked" and"lying" in off-the-cuff comments, then refused to apologize to what he called a"Republican attack squad." Mr. Bush accused Mr. Kerry of trying to"gut" American intelligence services, and he authorized a television ad charging that Mr. Kerry"would raise taxes by at least $900 billion" and weaken national defense. Mr. Kerry fired back with an ad asserting that he had never called for such a thing and wanted to cut taxes for the middle class.

"Doesn't America deserve more from its president than misleading negative ads?" the announcer intoned.

Probably not, at least if history is any guide. Washington's 2004 political class may be deploring the nasty tone of the fledgling campaign and wondering what awful things Mr. Bush and Mr. Kerry will be saying about each other come October, but historians remain unimpressed. Negative campaigns are American.

While voters may complain that every campaign seems the most negative ever, contrarians say they serve a useful purpose. In a democracy with a free press and a robust public debate, attacks can be informative and compelling enough to make voters pay attention.

Politics have always been a spectator sport in the United States. As at football games, it is not enough to root for your own team. You have to denigrate the other.

In addition, the country has always been divided by race, region, economics and class, leading to vitriol between the two men representing each side of the divide.

That said, for all the debate about whether Mr. Bush has diminished himself by going negative so early, the Bush-Kerry matchup has not been particularly negative, at least not yet, by historical standards. More important, their attacks have been about substance that voters can learn from, like national security and taxes.

"People have not begun to sling mud," said Walter Russell Mead, a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations."So far it's amateur hour - no illegitimate children yet."

Mr. Mead was referring to the mother of all negative campaigns, the 1884 race between Grover Cleveland and James G. Blaine, a Republican senator from Maine. The race is perhaps best known for the attack line"Ma! Ma! Where's my Pa?" which Republicans chanted at Cleveland, who while mayor of Buffalo had an illicit relationship with a widow who bore him a child. Democrats had a response:"Gone to the White House. Ha! Ha! Ha!"

Historians say Cleveland probably would have lost had it come out closer to Election Day. As it was, Democrats had time to fight back. They painted Blaine as a corrupt businessman who ended a letter with the instructions,"burn this." But it became public, and Democrats broke into song:

"Blaine! Blaine! James G. Blaine!

The con-ti-nen-tal liar from the state of Maine."

One of the nastiest campaigns was one of the first. In the election of 1800, Vice President Thomas Jefferson was tarred as an agent of the French Revolution, while President John Adams was decried as a monarchist; after Jefferson won, his enemies spread the story that he had a slave mistress, Sally Hemings.

Generally, the campaigns of the 19th century were meaner than the ones today, in large part because the newspapers of the era took sides and were often subsidized by the political parties."There was almost no restraint on what could be said in the partisan press," said Bruce J. Schulman, a professor of history and American studies at Boston University."Party organizations were much stronger, and the partisan attachment of voters was much more loyal. Politics then was not about trying to convert voters based on issues. There were more or less no swing voters. It was all about getting your army of voters to the polls."

But the 20th century had its low moments, too, like the 1948 race between Thomas E. Dewey and the incumbent Harry S. Truman. An Oct. 26 headline in The New York Times captures the campaign's tenor:"President Likens Dewey to Hitler as Fascists' Tool."

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