Attack Ads Are Good for You! in Praise of Negative Campaigning

By Mark, David | Reason, November 2006 | Go to article overview
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Attack Ads Are Good for You! in Praise of Negative Campaigning


Mark, David, Reason


MICHAEL STEELE encountered tough financial times in the late 1990S. Though he earned a law degree at Georgetown in 1991, the Maryland Republican failed the bar exams in his home state and in Washington, D.C. As a result, his practice at a large international law firm in Washington was limited in the high-end work it could perform and in the lees it could charge.

Steele eventually struck out on his own, founding the Steele Group, a business and legal consulting firm in suburban Prince George's County, Maryland. It seems the business rarely made a profit; Steele says it encountered financial challenges when clients didn't pay their bills. The firm eventually dissolved, and Steele's personal debts mounted. By 2002, according to financial disclosure reports, he had borrowed $35,000 through a line of credit against his home.

A fuller picture of Steele's money situation at that time remains clouded, due to gaps in his resume and his unwillingness to detail past finances. What is clear is that while his finances were plummeting, his political star was on the rise. He moved up quickly from local party activist to state Republican Party chairman and, in 2003, to lieutenant governor of Maryland, becoming the first black person of either party elected to statewide office.

Steele is now a candidate for the U.S. Senate. When Democrats raise questions about his past personal money woes, he dismisses them as negative campaigning, suggesting his opaque financial past has no bearing on public policy decisions. "What does it matter to any voter whether or not you paid a bill on time?" Steele asked in a September 2005 radio interview, shortly before declaring his Senate candidacy. "There has to be, I think, a veil of privacy, even around public figures. The expectation is, to run for office doesn't mean I turn over everything I've ever done in my life for you to sit in judgment of. It's one of the reasons why it is very difficult to find individuals who are capable, competent, and committed to public service who want to get into this business."

Steele is hardly alone in his professed outrage at aggressive campaign tactics. Politicians routinely try to shift attention away from issues of public concern, playing the victim of unfair, invasive attacks. But is closely examining a candidate's questionable financial history wrong? Senators, after all, spend hundreds of billions of taxpayer dollars. Shouldn't potentially germane information about Steele's financial history be available to voters, who can decide for themselves whether it is relevant to his qualifications?

Negative campaigning is an issue across the country this fall, in campaigns from Massachusetts to Hawaii and in races down the ballot from U.S. senator to county assessor. As wounded politicians whine that such speech is out of bounds, it's time to stand up in defense of the much-maligned attack ad. In this age of instantaneous information via blogs, round-the-clock cable coverage, and other media, political attacks can be swiftly countered. Any opinion offered about a candidate, no matter how mean, vile, or sinister, can be rebutted immediately and globally. Thanks to such exchanges, voters this year will know a lot about prospective elected officials if they are willing to process multiple sources of information and draw their own conclusions.

Voters Hate Negativity--Except When They Like It

Many people recoil at negative political ads. Indeed, negative campaigning has become a catch-all phrase that implies there is something inherently wrong with criticizing an opponent. It is one of the most bemoaned aspects of the American political system, particularly by academics and journalists who say it lowers the level of discourse and intensifies divisions among voters.

The dim academic view of negative campaigning was reflected in an influential 1999 Political Science Review study by Arizona State University political scientists Patrick J.

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Attack Ads Are Good for You! in Praise of Negative Campaigning
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