Fall 1999 was a miserable time for Vice President Al Gore. Facing an unexpectedly strong primary challenge from Bill Bradley, Gore's listless campaign seemed to exist only to provide fodder for a series of withering assessments by a snickering press. The critiques all hit the same notes: Gore's wonky proposals were small and dull, his sunny autobiographical speeches strained credibility, and his refusal to even mention his opponent by name made him seem aloof and out of touch.
Pundits across the political spectrum urged Gore to get tough, to go negative, to play to his political strengths of ruthlessness and tenacity. When the vice president took their advice (unveiling the since-discarded campaign slogan "Stay and fight"), almost everyone agreed he had finally found his way. "Gore has always been at his best when counterpunching opponents," explained a typical article in Time magazine, "... and now he has happily settled into the rhythms of a middleweight club fighter."
But, just a few months after vanquishing Bradley, Gore is back in his customary role as pundit fodder. As certain as the press was then that Gore needed to stay perpetually on the attack, it is now equally certain that the opposite is true. Commentators are united in the belief that his attack-a-day strategy against Texas Governor George W. Bush failed miserably. Dynamic words like "counterpunching" have disappeared from media accounts of Gore's speeches, replaced with adjectives such as "flailing" and "carping."
You'd think Gore would have learned by now to ignore such maddeningly contradictory advice. Instead, he has publicly confessed his "mistake" and dutifully reoriented his campaign along the lines the press demands: issuing wonky proposals, broadcasting sunny autobiographical ads, and declining to utter the name of his opponent.
It's hard to tell whether Gore truly believes the media's critique or whether he is simply prostrating himself before the new consensus in the hope that the gods of conventional wisdom will smile upon him once more. Regardless, his campaign's decision to abandon negativity is a concession to the media's laziness and deep intellectual confusion. Sure, the press dislikes (or claims to dislike) negative campaigning and often conceals this moral judgment in the cool language of pragmatic political analysis. But in truth there is little reason to believe Gore's negative campaigning has failed, much reason to believe it could still work, and even more reason to believe it would be good for American democracy.
The only evidence that Gore's attacks on Bush have failed is that the vice president has fallen a few points in the polls since the end of the primaries. (In many polls, Bush's lead barely exceeds the margin of error.) But this could be the result of any number of factors: Bush is no longer being contrasted with vigorous Arizona Senator John McCain, Gore is no longer being contrasted with the flaccid Bradley, people are paying less attention to politics, and so forth. It is almost impossible to determine which of these developments has caused Gore's slump. But, since political reporters are mainly in the business of assessing campaign tactics, they have a professional bias toward viewing tactics as the explanation for any change in the polls. Hence Gore's decision to attack Bush is to blame for his troubles. As this thesis circulated through the newsmagazines and talk shows, it took on an air of scientific precision.
In fact, the strategic rationale for Gore's going negative remains as strong as it was during the primary season. For one thing, a negative campaign allows Gore to mask his natural weaknesses. Given his mediocre mass-communication skills, it's unlikely the vice president will win the affection of a large majority of voters; but he might well persuade them to distrust Bush, about whom they still know little.
A negative campaign also addresses the structural disadvantage of running as a sitting vice president: it's hard to propose significant policy shifts. A positive campaign requires a steady stream of innovative new proposals. But vice presidents have a difficult time selling these; inevitably, they are asked why their bright idea wasn't proposed by their own president, and they rarely have a good answer. And new ideas usually require more spending, which undercuts Gore's basic promise to maintain fiscal discipline.
Moreover, the main questions of the 2000 election are, from Gore's perspective, negative ones. After eight years of holding the White House, the Democrats do not have a lot of big new ideas they could plausibly enact. Gore's "new" proposals--for instance, individual savings accounts--are mainly souped-up versions of old Clinton programs that went nowhere. Bush, on the other hand, does propose radical policy shifts--focusing on cutting taxes substantially and privatizing Social Security. Gore will be hard-pressed to argue that his proposals will dramatically improve the country, but he can make a strong case that Bush's would make things much worse. And so, since Bush's ideas have greater consequences than Gore's, his platform is the proper ground for debate.
The one important downside to negative campaigning is the widespread prejudice against it, which can redound against its practitioners. Negative campaigning ranks with soft money and partisan gridlock as the kind of thing good-government types allow themselves to detest. Negativity is frequently held up as the cause of such evils as voter apathy and the decline of public discourse.
But these charges are both wrong. Negative campaigns can suppress voter turnout, but they can increase it, too--witness the surge of voter interest in the Bush-McCain primary slugfest, particularly in South Carolina and Michigan, where it was most vicious. And negative campaigning is at least as honest as positive campaigning. Gore's assaults on Bush may lack the dispassion and nuance of a Brookings Institution seminar, but they get the relevant points across pretty clearly. The vice president's biographical speeches from last summer, on the other hand, present a version of his life history far more slanted than anything he has said about Bush.
The emptiness of the "nice" campaign is embodied in the Democratic National Committee's most recent TV advertisement. It features a montage of images of the Gore family overlaid with insipid bromides about fatherhood. The only reference to issues is a single sentence--"The Gore plan: promote responsible fatherhood"--that gives not the slightest hint as to what "the Gore plan" actually is.
So, if negative campaigning is often more substantive than positive campaigning, why do journalists treat it with such scorn? The answer is that campaign reporting is structurally biased against substance. Campaign journalists are generally not policy wonks. Since they have neither the training, the inclination, nor (writing on tight deadlines) the time to judge the substance of the candidates' claims, they focus instead on style. A typical dispatch from the hustings will tell you next to nothing about whether Gore's attack on one of Bush's plans is true or false. All that will come across is that Gore sounds "negative."
The fixation on style leads to an ingrained suspicion that policy-based criticisms are specious. This assumption, often unstated, bubbled to the surface in a recent piece by Newsweek's Howard Fineman. "Gore knows that Bush isn't really out to `destroy' Social Security," Fineman wrote last week, "but he has no compunction about saying so, loudly and often." Actually, Gore's description of Bush's plan is the same critique--albeit in a highly unsubtle form--as that made by most moderate and liberal economists. There's no reason for Fineman to think Gore, a moderate liberal himself, doesn't believe this, let alone for him to assert unequivocally that Gore "knows" otherwise (that is, unless the vice president has secretly confessed his duplicity to Newsweek).
In refusing to analyze the merits of Gore's policy critique and treating it instead as evidence of a character flaw, Fineman's article is typical. Reporters, by and large, do not feel qualified to judge competing claims about policy, a task that frequently requires them to listen to lengthy, obtuse briefings from the likes of Alan Blinder or Paul Wolfowitz. But they do feel qualified to judge politicians' personality traits. A candidate's diatribe against his opponent's plans for nuclear missile defense comes across as so much white noise. An accusation that an opponent is a liar, by contrast, is something real that reporters can sink their teeth into.
Bush's campaign seems to grasp the rules of the negativity game much better than Gore's. Bush has even gone so far as to make civility a central theme of his candidacy. He has expressed his disdain for "trash-mouth politics" and said, "I don't believe America is interested in having a president who gets elected by tearing people down." The GOP has announced that its convention will be free of partisan rancor. At the same time, Bush regularly ridicules Gore for claiming to have "invented the Internet" and describes him as someone who "will say anything to get elected." In the current environment, as the Bushies understand, such comments don't qualify as negative campaigning, because they don't concern policy and are delivered with a light touch. By any reasonable definition, of course, negative campaigning is exactly what the Texas governor is doing. Come to think of it, maybe that's why he's winning.
This article originally ran in the July 3, 2000, issue of the magazine.