Tuesday, February 24, 2004


Computer malfunctions were again to blame for the lack of postings yesterday (Along with, we must admit, our inexperience in the world of blogging.) Regardless, we attempt to make it up to you today with a lengthy exploration of an old conservative standby.

On last Thursday's (02.19) edition of CNN's Crossfire, Tucker Carlson sang another variation of the oft-issued GOP warning: Negative campaigns don't work, just ask Bob Dole!

As Crossfire is required viewing at things fall apart, we were able to witness Carlson's statement in real time on Thursday afternoon. However, the show transcript omits the comment, listing it instead as CROSSTALK. Regardless, the direction Carlson is taking becomes clear through his other dialog:

CARLSON: Howard Dean made it OK for Democrats just to run with hate as their campaign.


CARLSON: He made it OK to hate. Actually, they're going to lose because of it.


CARLSON: It's true, because it's unattractive.

BEGALA: And I know you're concerned about Democrats winning, Tucker. I hope they listen to your


BEGALA: ... advice.

CARLSON: Well, I hope they do, too.

Crossfire 02.19.04

This tired plea from pundits like Carlson, for less "hate" in the Democratic
campaign, is less than genuine.

For one, negative campaigns work. In fact, George Bush proved it in 2000. When, with a more angry, more negative version of the failed '96 Dole effort, he received enough votes to make the election close; therefore allowing other
parties to become involved.

Among the similarities between the two campaigns: both men made integrity a part of their campaign message; and both strove to present themselves as the moral opposite of Bill Clinton, while simultaneously avoiding direct attacks.

In the following excerpts, the first a description of the 1996 Dole message, the second of Bush in 2000, a common strategy is revealed.

1) On matters of character, Dole's new stump speech sets out the contrasts with Clinton by indirection. The election, he says, "is all about values", character and integrity, but he rarely attacks Clinton personally in those areas.

The Washington Post "In Contrasting Himself to Clinton, Dole Finds Voice" 03.09.1996

2) Wolfe said that Bush is cleverly addressing those concerns: "If he had come out and said, 'I'm going to get in your face and keep reminding you about what Clinton did,' he'd be dead in the water. So he's doing it by indirection,' a reference to Bush's promise of "a fresh start," and his pledge to "uphold the integrity of the office."

The Philadelphia Inquirer "Examining The Character Issue" 10.13.2000

There is nothing striking about both campaigns making use of indirection, a not uncommon tactic; what stands out is the level of attention granted Bill
Clinton in the Bush strategy.

Whenever possible, Bush made it a point to link Al Gore with Bill Clinton's
scandals; both real and imagined, from fundraising to Lewinsky. In fact, Bush did so even though he thought, were Gore elected president, he could restore "honor and dignity to the White House." (The Dallas Morning News "Bush Re-Ties Gore To Clinton's Failings" 8.11.00)

In September of 2000, President Clinton tried to make clear that Gore had
nothing to do with his own personal indiscretions. Before a group of ministers, he said, "Surely, no fair-minded person would blame him for the mistakes I've made." The next day, George Bush commented: "You are either part of an administration or you are not part of it." He went on to say, "There's no question the president embarrassed the nation. Everybody knows that." (The Dallas Morning News "Bush Re-Ties Gore To Clinton's Failings" 8.11.00)

While Bob Dole did attempt to make Clinton's character an issue in the 1996 campaign, his efforts came nowhere near those of Bush. A search of the EBSCO Host Newspaper Database (Company Motto: no, we're not LexisNexis; yes we do include the NY Times, Washington Post and Wall St. Journal) for references to "Dole AND Character," from January to November of 1996, returned 137 matches. A search for "Bush AND Character," from January to November of 2000, returned a whopping 845 matches. A search for "honor" yielded a paltry 22 returns for Dole, compared to 517 for Bush; a search for "integrity" resulted in 485 matches for Bush, just 52 for Dole. And while neither man focused as much attention on "morals," Bush still dwarfed Dole, 52 to 2.

Dole, the standby example for conservatives looking to decry the trappings of negative campaigns, was actually accused of being not being "tough enough" in his first debate with Clinton. (The Wall Street Journal, "Dole Assails Clinton, Accusing Him Of Violating Trust" 10.17.96) Indeed, for most of the campaign, Dole seemed to downplay the negative, going so far as to reduce the visible role of Newt Gingrich, whom many saw as a polarizing figure. (The Washington Post, "For Gingrich, More At Stake Than A Simple Reelection" 11.06.96) When Dole did turn to questioning Clinton's character, it was late in the campaign and with reluctance. "Dole Warms To Task Of Attacking Clinton," read the headline of the New York Times on October 19, 1996. And while the move did not sway voters toward Dole, there is little evidence that it cost him the election. "The Dean of Washington Politics," David Broder, noted several key factors that played a role in Dole's losing effort. (The Washington Post, "assessing 96: Common Sense" 11.06.96) Among them, the Republican induced slowdown of Medicare funding in 1995, and two Newt Gingrich-engineered federal government shutdowns. Broder also reported a "notably cool" public response to Dole's tax cut proposal.

In contrast to the Dole campaign's reluctance to use negativity, the 2000 Bush effort displayed a need to link Al Gore with the character-failings of Bill Clinton right from the start; perhaps due to the lack of any real character-failings on behalf of Gore himself. (Along these lines, even George Bush credited Gore with raising a healthy and strong family: The Dallas Morning News "Bush Re-Ties Gore To Clinton's Failings" 08.11.00) The message was clear: the way to get at Gore is through Clinton. Conservative pundit Bill Kristol made this observation:

"Ultimately, if Gore is not held a little responsible for the ethical misdeeds
of the Clinton-Gore administration, it'll be hard to beat him. And Bush himself, in speeches, needs to talk about the rule of law, the damage that has been done to the institutions of government. He can't let Gore simply walk away from this."

The Philadelphia Inquierer, "Bush Campaign Mapping Aggressive Attacks On Gore" 09.16.00

Throughout the 2000 campaign, Bush, who at most every stop promised to "uphold the honor and dignity" of the office of president (The Dallas Morning News "Bush Re-Ties Gore To Clinton's Failings" 8.11.00), immersed his stump speeches in rhetoric extolling morals and virtue. While campaigning in Oregon, he said this: "Good leaders create a climate of honesty and integrity. We will make people proud again, so that Americans who love their country can once again respect their government." On the trail in Pittsburgh, he commented, "we will ask not only what is legal, but also what is right." (The Chicago Tribune "Bush Attacks Clinton Administration" 10.26.00)

The effort to marry Al Gore to the alleged scandals of Clinton worked so well that by October of 2000, "character" ranked as a top priority among potential presidential voters. That same month, pollster John Zogby marveled at the effectiveness of the Bush strategy:

"Why is this race so close? We've got a smart vice president who has helped preside over a healthy economy, so why is he in a dead heat? The only big reason is because of the strength of the morality issue. Because of his ties to Clinton, and the perception among many voters that he may have some of the same flaws."

The Philadelphia Inquirer "Examining The Character Issue" 10.13.2000

To many voters, the Bush campaign had succeeded in transposing the sins of Bill Clinton onto Al Gore. The result was so damning, it likely influenced Gore's choice of Joe Lieberman as running mate. In an interview with NPR, Bill Kristol was asked if Lieberman was selected to "inoculate" Gore against assaults on Clinton's morality.

Mr. BILL KRISTOL: Well, I think to some degree, and the fact
that he was one of the Democrats most critical of Bill Clinton. You know, George Bush said on Thursday night, `No third term for Clinton-Gore.' It's going to be harder now to portray a Gore-Lieberman ticket as a third term for Clinton-Gore than if one were portraying a ticket of Gore and a Clinton supporter or a Clinton crony.

Certainly Lieberman helps as much as any vice presidential nominee can help take the edge off that. His criticism of Clinton was bold and early and strong. His personal life, he's considered a man of integrity and character. And so I think insofar as the Bush-Cheney ticket hoped to be able to coast in on a wave of longing for character and integrity in the White House, that is made more difficult by Gore's pick of Lieberman.

NPR "All Things Considered" 08.07.00

The notion that Bob Dole lost in 1996 due to negative campaigning is false. In addition, overwhelming evidence suggests that, following 1996, Conservatives learned not to avoid negative campaigns, but instead embrace them. The reluctance and indecision of Bob Dole gave way to the assuredness and moral certitude of Bush. Where Dole was late to attack, Bush was consistent in hammering away at the moral failings of Clinton. The typical Bush appearance was described by The Dallas Morning News: "Still, the issue of Clinton's infidelity and impeachment hangs in the air at every campaign stop, even if Bush does not mention it directly."

It seems clear that cautions against negative campaigning, put forth by conservative pundits citing the '96 Dole effort, are nothing more than surreptitious efforts to dissuade liberal criticism of the president. For almost three years, Bush enjoyed relatively benign opposition from the Democratic Party. Now, amidst a liberal awakening, conservatives are finding themselves in a new position: on the defensive.