Tune in, Turn Off

Article excerpt

Tune In, Turn Off

Political analysts have described the 1986 elections as the most negative contests in U.S. history. That may be an exaggeration. After all, the rumbustious campaigns of the nineteenth century produced such slogans as "Rum, Romanism and Rebellion,' "Blaine, Blaine, the Continental liar from the state of Maine' and "Ma! Ma! Where's my pa?/Gone to the White House/Ha! ha! ha!' Even Honest Abe was depicted by cartoonists as an ape. Still, most of this year's candidates found it more effective to challenge their opponents to produce a urine sample than to offer a program for creating jobs.

Negative campaigns are made for television, where emotion and image register more indelibly than ideas and ideology. The technique was used successfully by right-wing PACs in 1980 and 1984, and the Democrats, in their current me-too posture, imitated them this year. An added dividend of negativism is that it relieves a candidate of the onus of offering a program that might offend someone. We are in the age of a no-fault President and a gutless Congress, which attempts to reduce the budget through the impersonal machinery of Gramm-Rudman-Hollings or, in the case of the House, passes two antidrug bills, one with the death penalty and one without it. Candidates who avoid issues are merely training for the job.

The strategy of negativism produced its own antithesis in Pennsylvania, where gubernatorial candidate William Scranton 3d announced that he had canceled all commercials tearing down him opponent, Robert P. Casey. The next wave of Scranton commercials showed various prominent figures burbling about what a fine man their candidate was because he had stopped the mudslinging. Casey's media mentors riposted with an upbeat paean to their man's vision of a greater Pennsylvania, with zero unemployment and happy children picking flowers--which reminds us that positive commercials need not be any more issue-oriented than negative ones. …