The Spectacle of Attack Ads

IT is the week before Super Tuesday, the hottest of political seasons, and the negative campaign rhetoric is increasing tenfold.

Gone, unfortunately, are the days of the New Hampshire primary when issues were actually discussed, press conferences around Gennifer Flowers notwithstanding. The political wisdom now has it that loud sound-bite attacks work better on voters' minds than do ideas and defining real issues.

In New Hampshire, Senator Kerrey said Governor Clinton's draft record should not be a deciding factor. Now he says it should be. This may be good ol' hardball politics. But it still raises as many questions about Mr. Kerrey as about Mr. Clinton.

Clinton, meanwhile, leveled his guns at Paul Tsongas. The former Massachusetts senator is a "cold-blooded" technocrat with "dumb ideas," says Clinton. The reason? Mr. Tsongas's opposition to the quick-fix middle-class tax cuts bandied about by Congress and by Clinton himself. In truth, he and Tsongas have much in common on economics. Just last month Clinton said in debates he agreed with virtually "everything" Tsongas proposed. What a difference coming in second makes.

When it comes to negative punching power, however, the Republicans are on top. Pat Buchanan's lurid TV ads portray President Bush as supporting federal funds for art-pornography. Such ads give the Bush camp a taste of how their own Willie Horton ads felt to Michael Dukakis four years ago. But they are no more honest - and reflect just as badly on the candidate dishing them out.

Negative ads say nothing about a candidate's ability to lead. With the US in serious recession and the world in serious flux, leadership ideas are the issue. The media must not forget that. A network commentator says the new attacks signal the start of "real politics." Not so - though 10-second attacks are easier to report than substantive issues. Tsongas alone has called for an end to negative ads, though he has indulged in the practice a bit himself. Regardless, the call should be heeded.

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