Cleanup Call to Dirty Campaigns

Politer Politics

When the city of San Francisco asked Robert Barnes to sign a voluntary code of conduct, which would govern how the campaign consultant directed his clients' races, he scrawled across the page: "This is against my constitutional rights!"

His concern: Efforts to make campaigns "clean" can themselves be politicized. "You can be attacked for not signing it," he says. "People should be judged by what they do, not what they sign."

But such suspicions notwithstanding, codes of conduct are making their way into at least a dozen political races from California to Maine. Even as the Clinton-Lewinsky scandal brings the national political discourse to new lows, and as Americans' long-time frustration with attack-dog campaigns reaches a peak, reformers are gradually finding ways to bring greater civility to election-year politicking.

There are signs that the political elite is beginning to respond. Over the weekend, the fund-raising committees in Congress pledged not to give money to candidates who engage in personal attacks on their opponents.

Across the country, meanwhile, candidates are promising to run clean, issue-oriented races. And a national think tank has introduced a "barometer for political conduct" so citizens can gauge politicians' behavior for themselves.

The long-term goal is to reengage a cynical and apathetic public.

Reformers are "putting into place the mechanisms for success in this area, when the larger culture is ready for it," says Andy Kohut, director of the Pew Research Center for the People & the Press.

And when will the public be ready? Analysts say that could depend on the outcome of the Clinton-Lewinsky affair, which may further erode Americans' respect for the political culture.

"The happiest outcome from this very dreary, tawdry year ... is that there will be a pendulum swing ... which will produce better politics," says Paul Taylor, director of the Alliance for Better Campaigns in Washington.

Other analysts are less sanguine. Polls show Americans' frustration with nasty, negative politicking is reaching new highs, but people also take the mud-slinging for granted - and even expect it from their politicians.

What about press coverage of elections, which is routinely derided as titillating and prurient? Channel surfers continue to reward tabloid news shows with high ratings. Still, there are signs that Americans are ready for more substance, both from the press and their politicians.

A poll done this summer for the Project on Campaign Conduct in Camden, Maine, found that more than 80 percent of voters in Ohio and Washington State were concerned about misleading and negative attacks in political campaigns. Seventy-nine percent said they would have more respect for candidates who signed and abided by a code that banned attack ads, and 74 percent would be more likely to vote for such candidates.

But the reality is that, despite these polls, the public often rewards contestants who run negative ads. Even so, the numbers of people who object to such tactics are now so overwhelming that candidates should take note, says project director Brad Rourke. "It seems to me the tide is turning."

In 1996, the Institute for Global Ethics got all Maine's candidates for federal and statewide office to sign a nonpartisan pledge of good conduct. It proved fairly successful, until the last few weeks of the race when some mud-slinging occurred.

Moreover, special-interest groups, which did not sign the pledge, spent liberally on so-called issue ads. Mr. Rourke calls such ads the "800-pound gorilla," because out-of-state groups can come in at the last minute and add a high level of animosity, no matter who has signed a code.

Spreading the idea

Still, on the strength of the relative success of the Maine project, the institute got a grant and started the Project on Campaign Conduct. It's now working in both Ohio and Washington State to encourage candidates there to sign similar codes.

But practical problems are already cropping up, and not just in those two states. Several candidates elsewhere have issued one-sided, partisan codes designed to put their opponents on the defensive. "They're used as a tripwire, a political trick," says Mr. Barnes, the campaign consultant in California.

When codes are used as political "gimmicks," they undermine genuine efforts to improve the process, pundits say. A code should be brokered by a nonpartisan group and signed by both candidates, says Rourke, so neither side has a political edge.

That appears to be working so far in California's gubernatorial race, where both Democrat Gray Davis and Republican Dan Lungren have agreed to a code and are running issue oriented ads - at least, so far.

But the public wants more than political pabulum. In fact, by an overwhelming majority, the Project on Campaign Conduct poll showed that voters like the kind of negative ads that point up contradictions between what an opponent says and how he or she votes. The public objects only when the ads become personal smears, focusing on things such as a candidate's financial problems or marital fidelity.

Media's fault?

On that issue, political consultants agree with the public. A recent poll for the Center for Congressional and Presidential Studies found that 97 percent of political consultants don't see anything wrong with negative advertising. And 82 percent say it's acceptable to focus primarily on criticizing a candidate. Nearly two-thirds also blame the media for the public's disillusionment with the election process.

Since 1988, when coverage of the presidential race hit its low, think tanks and media-research centers have been trying to improve press coverage. Armed with studies, polls, and seminars, they've urged local stations and the networks to focus more on issues and less on the horse race. "We are making a little bit of progress," says Mr. Taylor.

In 1996, Taylor helped persuade FOX and PBS to give a limited amount of free air time to both presidential candidates. The major networks balked. This year, Taylor is back with pilot projects in 10 states, where they're working to set up mini-debates and hoping for more free air time.

But Marvin Kalb of Harvard University's Shorenstein Center for the Press, Politics, and Public Policy is not optimistic much in the press will change, despite the reformers' efforts.

"Might there be a rush to reform after the Lewinsky matter dies down?" asks Professor Kalb. "Probably. But it will also probably fail because of the technological and financial incentives built into American journalism today." In other words, sensationalism sells - or at least network executives think it does.

So Kalb, in conjunction with the Markle Foundation, is giving voters a way to access political information on their own. Called Web, White & Blue, their new Web site will give voters access to huge volumes of political information now available on the Internet.

"A recent Georgia Tech survey showed that somewhere between 75 and 80 percent of Internet users are registered to vote, but only 55 percent vote," says Andy Brack of Brack Network Strategies, which is helping to set up the site. "This is an effort to encourage the additional 25 percent to go out and cast a ballot."

The Harwood Institute has also put out Barometer for Political Conduct, to help Americans judge politicians and the press.

"Hopefully they'll work," says Barnes. "But human nature can get in the way."

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