Memo To:Website Fans, Browsers
From: Jude Wanniski
Re: A Referendum on Sin
Whatever we might say about negative political advertising, we have to agree that it is effective when the negative message about a candidate resonates with the voters. If your opponent is going East and you know the voters know, deep down, that they must go West, it helps you define yourself by criticizing your opponent for going East. They then know you have gone to the trouble of figuring out not only that it would be bad for their political subdivision to go East, but also that you have spent a bundle on advertising to make your point. It helps if you also have political advertising that advises voters that you, in fact, are headed in the right direction.
The Republican National Committee has now decided to spend $10 million (perhaps more) on ads that invited the electorate to rouse themselves from their daily chores and go to the polls to express their distaste for President Clinton’s lies about Monica by voting Republican. I’ve been asked my opinion about the ads, and all I could say is that the one ad I’ve seen is fine by me. It contains both elements, East and West, with two soccer moms talking first about Clinton telling lies, then talking about the Republican agenda on taxes and Social Security. Democrats are talking about a backlash, but the backlash would only occur if voters see negative Republican spots and are offended by them. If the GOP ads would mention Monica, they would certainly produce a backlash, because they would be dragging the young girl into the political equation and doing violence to her in order to win votes. It’s a fine line. Ross Perot’s point that we can no longer tell when the President is acting in the national interest or his own is certainly one that the voters can connect with, as I do.
Negative spots that accuse a candidate of missing votes on the floor of the House during an election year, which is how New York Senator Alphonse D’Amato has spent several million dollars attacking his Democratic opponent, Rep. Chuck Schumer, are a stupendous waste of money, because they do not tell the voters whether Schumer would have voted East or West if he were there. D’Amato may lose his Senate seat because he has irritated voters with such inconsequential negative ads. In the same way, I point out in my new book The Last Race of the Twentieth Century, that Steve Forbes and Bob Dole both made colossal errors in the millions they spent on negative ads. Steve’s mistake was that he was unknown to the electorate, so that as he attacked Dole, a man known to the GOP electorate, he was defining himself as a negative sort of fellow. In his case, the negatives against Dole did not make an impression because they did not resonate. When Dole counter-attacked, Steve was blown away. In the general election, Dole’s campaign spent millions on tv spots showing President Clinton apologizing for having raised taxes in 1993. The voters accepted the apology the GOP paid for airing.
The NYTimes this morning has a front page piece on “Gleeful Democrats Assail Ads By G.O.P. on Clinton Scandal,” quoting several party people who predict a backlash that will actually help the Democrats. I agree with Times columnist William Safire that Republican leaders threw away their opportunity to develop themes of taxes and growth for these midterm elections by relying on the scandal issue to win seats. Safire, though, also thinks that the “tasteful” attack ads will help coax more GOP votes out of the passive electorate than they will produce more votes from the Democratic faithful. I’ve been defending Clinton to the extent that I do not think he has yet had to face a charge that he should be thrown out of office. On the other hand, I know the voters absolutely must find a way to show their rejection of the idea that the man of the house can have an adulterous affair and get away with it as long as he makes a good living. In this regard, culture is more important than economics. If the Republicans pick up more than the handful of seats they are now expected to get, the gains will be seen as resulting from voter displeasure with Clinton’s behavior, but not as an outcry for his removal from office. The punishment must leave a lasting impression on the national culture and its own intolerance for casual marital vows as well as casual political vows.