Posted on January 22, 2000
Those Nice Moderates
"Tisk, tisk," says the RLC
In this modern era of sensitivity, it has become axiomatic that negative political campaigning is morally wrong. It's easy to see why politicians tend to parrot this sentiment, since any focus group is bound to display negative feelings toward negativism, but like so much of the common political wisdom, it's plainly untrue.
If political races are to be cleaned up, what must be deterred is campaigning which is inaccurate, not necessarily negative. Many of the more egregious distortions and misrepresentations in politics arise from "positive" campaigning, such as Vice President Gore's taking credit for the internet, or President Clinton's insistence that he had put 100,000 new cops on the streets. Honest negative criticisms of their opponents would have been more beneficial to the political process than these figments of their self-congratulatory imaginations.
Mistaken outrage over negative advertising cast Steve Forbes as the villain in the 1996 Republican primary. In response to his critics, Forbes entered the 2000 race determined to conduct a more positive campaign. As a result, his early ads were fashionably vacuous. One of them pointed out that he had won the endorsement of all five of his own daughters. Imagine that -- not one of them defected to the "W" camp.
As the campaign has progressed, Forbes has been forced to reconsider his approach. The cornerstone of his candidacy is his flat tax plan, but five of the six Republican candidates are proposing some kind of tax reform (Sen. Orrin Hatch being the lone exception). In order to win votes, he must explain why he thinks his plan is better than those of Gov. Bush and Sen. McCain, who have been consistently polling ahead of him. He can't do that without being critical of those two candidates.
The "moderate" Republican Leadership Council, the group Republicans turn to when they are looking for moderate leadership, has begun running ads against Forbes, chastising him for going negative. (The irony of its expressing this through negative ads of its own is apparently lost.) The more recent of these commercials calls on Forbes to "join George Bush and John McCain in running a positive campaign on the issues."
It was when Forbes began running on the tax issue, though, that he drew the fire of the RLC, which did not criticize the irrelevance of his earlier ads, nor did it ever prod its favored candidates to spell out their positions. Indeed, the Bush candidacy has had no defining issue, other than poll numbers which suggest he would beat either Democrat opponent.
Another RLC ad featured a schoolmarmish woman lecturing to the camera that, "Someone needs to tell Steve Forbes that if he doesn't have anything nice to say -- don't say anything at all." That's what moderates call leadership?
Bob Dole seemed to take this see-no-evil approach four years ago, when he declined to remark on the numerous Clinton scandals until his eleventh-hour "where's the outrage" appeal, which spurred many to ask where his outrage had been all year. Yet the RLC faults Forbes for Dole's defeat, whining that he "spent all his money tearing down his opponents" during the primaries.
This destruction the council describes is actually a public service done for the voters, for it does them no good if the candidates' records go unexamined. If Dole was "torn down" by his own legislative history, then it was not Forbes who did the damage, but Dole himself.
Seldom do positive political ads impart much information to the voters, because they tend to be more oriented toward images than issues. The challenger wears a hardhat and a short sleeve shirt and tie, and strides briskly through a bustling work site, energetically pointing at things. The sweater-clad incumbent plays frisbee with his dog, then sips lemonade on a porch swing with his wife. The viewers, meanwhile, are left to provide the meanings for what they see. In reality, they know next to nothing about the two candidates. Now, if Mr. Hardhat criticizes Mr. Sweater's record on crime, and Mr. Sweater challenges Mr. Hardhat's education plan, then the voters can start to make informed decisions.
Forbes' "attacks" gave voters information with which to make a decision about Dole. Because of Dole's role in support of the tax hikes in the 1982 TEFRA deal, and his longstanding feud with supply-siders within his own party, Forbes questioned the senator's commitment to his promise of an across-the-board 15 percent tax cut. Heaven forfend.
It is illustrative of where the RLC stands that it believes that the Republican Party was harmed not by Dole's career-long record of cooperating with the Democrats on taxes, but only by Forbes' criticism of it. For all this group's talk of campaigning "on the issues," a frank debate about an issue is the one thing of which it is least tolerant.
Hence the council's opposition to "litmus tests." A litmus test (really just another term for a standard) treats an issue far too importantly as far as the RLC is concerned. The last thing these people want is a bunch of "divisive" issues cluttering up the place while they're trying to ... what is it they're trying to do again?
Oh, yes. They're trying to defeat the Democrats, although how they propose to do that without being able to withstand an argument with Steve Forbes is unknown. If the nominee is too delicate to handle a spirited Republican primary race, then how will he maintain his composure under a barrage of sleazy attacks from Al Gore and the congressional Democrats, to say nothing of Rather, Brokaw, Jennings et al? The moderate leaders will put up a valiant struggle, of course. No doubt, they are already preparing their "we're rubber, you're glue" defense.
It's bad enough that the RLC is trying to implement this invertebrate philosophy, without laying responsibility for its conception at the feet of their party's pillar of fortitude, Ronald Reagan. True, Reagan often lectured the Republicans not to exhibit personal animosity toward each other, but he would never have argued that they should squelch substantive debate within their party, the way the Democrats do.
As a campaigner, Reagan was never one to rummage through opponents' closets for skeletons, but he was certainly willing to criticize other Republicans on matters of public policy. A 1976 speech of his, entitled "To Restore America," is proudly displayed by the Reagan Information Interchange. In it, he sharply criticizes President Ford on a number of points, including his approach to inflation and the national debt, his having signed a congressional pay raise, and his vacillations on gun control, as well as on his policy toward Cuba, and the timidity with which he dealt with the Soviet Union.
Had the Republican Leadership Council existed at that time, it would have found the conduct of its supposed leader appalling. Not only did Reagan say not nice things about his opponent, but he said them about the front-running incumbent. The RLC says that Dole lost because of Forbes, but a much better case could be made that the Ford campaign might have wobbled to victory against Carter, had it not been rattled by Reagan in the primaries.
The reason the RLC doesn't like open debate in the Republican primaries is that it believes in the Nixon-Ford campaign strategy, which dictates that a candidate should run to the right in the primary, then run to the center during the general election campaign. Moderate candidates are impeded from running to the right when conservative opponents point out their real positions. Some spineless conservatives subscribe to this same strategy, only to have their centrist cover blown by the Democrats. One candidate who never had any such worries was Ronald Reagan, whose own non-strategy consisted of saying exactly what he meant in October, just as he had done in March.
Real leaders, like Reagan, do not take positions which change with the colors of the foliage. Nor do they see the need to organize themselves into a council in order to lead. The RLC is an organization not of leaders, but of followers, who are enthusiastically following each other. If any position of leadership ever existed in their organization, it has by now been vacated by centrifugal force.
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