Imagine a campaign consultant to George W. Bush or John Kerry recommending a positive campaign as the only way to win the race. Wouldn't that be a refreshing change from all those TV ads that belittle or bemoan the other guy's record?
One can only hope. Political strategists for both candidates apparently see no other way to victory than to sling mud, half-truths, and fearmongering. Pollster John Zogby calls the 2004 contest a "red-meat campaign."
Journalists feed this tendency by covering politics as if it were a contact sport instead of a "chief executive" search for a superpower. Conventional wisdom also steps in and says that in a tight race, candidates have to "go negative" in order to get free time on TV news.
It's not even worth offering a few examples of the two camps' negative ads. That would just be a reminder that candidates aren't giving enough specifics on what they'd do as president for the next four years. That kind of information helps voters make their own judgments and comparisons. Negative ads try to make the judgment for the voter.
Negativity has risen in US politics as the ideological divide among Americans has grown sharper. In many "dead heat" races, negative ads seem to escalate. And the emergence of political groups separate from official campaigns, which run ads only to defeat an opponent, shows how much politics has become a game of tearing down the other guy more than building up your own.
It's the candidates themselves who must make a moral choice to "go positive," overriding advisers who claim that only negative campaigns can rally the electoral faithful and win over fence-sitters. A good example: Although freshman senator John Edwards lost in the Democratic primaries, largely because of his inexperience, he still gave Mr. Kerry a strong run for his money by winning over many voters with a positive, upbeat campaign.
He showed what's possible.
Surveys suggest voters want candidates to give direct answers to questions, offer a specific vision of what they want to achieve, and tell the truth about the necessary trade-offs, all the while being respectful of an opponent.
Between now and November, would-be voters will be subjected to a massive number of political ads, fueled by more money than has ever been spent on presidential campaigns. If an honest openness and mutual respect can't replace vague rhetoric and biting scorn, then more voters will simply tune out.
Americans are able to set the unwritten rules of how far a candidate can go in berating an opponent. Just what constitutes legitimate criticism and what is overly harsh will ultimately be decided at the polls.
Can Bush and Kerry start a positive campaign from here on? Of course they can. Just bring it on.