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Jewish World Review Jan. 10, 2000 /3 Shevat, 5760

Don Feder

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Conventional campaign wisdom a distraction from reality -- When it comes to political campaigns, forget conventional wisdom. As this year's races heat up, we will be assaulted with venerated cliches from pundits and media sources. Here are six universally accepted propositions that just ain't so.

1) Negative ads poison campaigns.

Stripped of its stigma, a negative ad is one that is -- horror of horrors -- critical of a candidate. It discloses deep, dark secrets (past positions, legislative votes) he'd rather we didn't know about.

While they can be misleading, negative ads more often are useful. Voters should want to know what causes a candidate has advanced and whether his record supports or contradicts his stands du jour.

Politicians who whine about negative ads don't want to be held accountable and probably would like us to base our votes on their campaign biographies. 2) There's too much money in politics.

In the current election cycle, candidates will spend an estimated $3 billion on federal campaigns. That's roughly one-eighth of what Americans spend on cosmetics annually.

In November, we will elect individuals who will dispose of 40 percent of our income and order many aspects of our lives. If campaign spending brings us more communication and better informed choices, it's worth every penny.

3) Political action committees are too powerful and must be curbed.

Political action committees are voluntary associations of individuals who pool their resources to advance common goals. In the 1997-1998 cycle, the National Right to Life PAC raised $1.1 million among 43,000-plus donors. The average contribution was $30 to $35.

A PAC can't contribute more than $10,000 to a campaign. It's a cheap politician who can be bought so inexpensively.

Grass-roots groups that can turn out thousands of voters in a congressional district (labor unions, sportsmen's associations, ethnic lobbies) have far more clout than a PAC that can hand over a $10,000 check in a House race with a $700,000 price tag.

PACs tend to give to candidates they agree with -- advancing their cause by supporting soulmates -- rather trying to buy influence with the uncommitted. 4) Party platforms are meaningless. Once elected, the standard-bearer invariably ignores them.

OK, party platforms aren't legally binding contracts. But they do reflect the values of the grass-roots. If anyone doubts the Democrats' commitment to high taxes, big government and racial spoils, they need only consult their national platform.

While right-to-lifers wish the GOP would go further than polishing its pro-life credentials every four years and pushing a ban on partial-birth abortions, at least it's on record acknowledging the humanity of the unborn and can be called upon to fulfill the pledge.

5) A man of humble origins would make the best president. Americans want to measure a candidate by what he's achieved. Forbes started rich and got richer. Ted Kennedy was elected to the Senate on his last name. Still, few men or women from middle-class backgrounds who go into politics remain connected to their roots. Bob Dole grew up dirt poor in Depression-era Kansas. After three decades in Congress, he was the quintessential power player.

With the greatest personal fortune of any presidential candidate, Steve Forbes probably has the best handle on what the middle-class needs (a tax code that doesn't penalize productivity).

6) Our next president should be someone who isn't a Washington insider.

There are people in the nation's capital who remain apart from the culture. Jesse Helms has been there since the '70s without succumbing to the temptation to want The Washington Post to have a favorable opinion of him. A career outside the Beltway is no guarantee of purity. In 1992, Bill Clinton ran against the Washington establishment, lest we forget.

A political consultant I know explains: "The D.C. culture has colonies all over the country. They all get their news from National Public Radio and their views from The New York Times." A liberal from Topeka, Kan., and a liberal from Montgomery County, Md., are interchangeable.

Conventional wisdom is uniformly wrong and a distraction from what should be the focus this year -- candidates' records, stands and credibility.

JWR contributing columnist Don Feder's latest book is Who's Afraid of the Religious Right. Comment on his column by clicking here.

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© 2000, Creators Syndicate