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Jewish World Review Feb. 28, 2000 /22 Adar I, 5760

Don Feder

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Bush and McCain make case for negative ads -- I HAVE A SOFT SPOT in my heart for negative ads. They are crucial to the no-holds-barred debate that is the essence of democracy. In this sense, negative is positive.

Apparently, the leading GOP contenders agree with me. While self-righteously proclaiming their victimhood, since New Hampshire each has come at the other with lead pipes and tire irons.

McCain, the self-anointed Prince of Positive, has simply decided that anything his campaign does couldn't possibly be negative.

In Michigan, McCain volunteers called Catholic voters with the following admonition: "Gov. George Bush has campaigned against Sen. John McCain by seeking the support of Southern fundamentalists who have expressed anti-Catholic views." But is he still beating the Pope?

That was tit for tat. In South Carolina, Bush backers told Evangelicals that McCain's campaign chairman, ex-Sen. Warren Rudman, wrote a book in which he described religious conservatives as "would-be censors, homophobes, bigots and latter-day Elmer Gantrys."

In one sense, the attacks were unwarranted; in another, fair comment. Neither man is a hater. McCain is supported by religious-right icon Gary Bauer. Bush's brother Jeb is a convert to Catholicism.

Still, Bush can be criticized for speaking at Bob Jones University and not dissociating himself from the school's anti-Catholicism, as can McCain for embracing a Republican who thinks religious conservatives just crawled out from under rocks.

But the fun didn't stop there. On integrity, McCain compared Bush to Bill Clinton. The governor said he was deeply hurt, then proceeded to explain how McCain's tax cut was un-Republican, while his spokesmen trashed the senator's record on everything from abortion to veterans' issues.

Simultaneously, both denounced the politics of personal destruction.

Tut-tutting over negative campaigning has become a media mantra. Political slash-and-burn is condemned as underhanded and a sure sign of desperation.

The public is turned off by these tactics, the media goo-goo brigade insists.

But it usually heeds them. Surveys show that voters are moved by fear and loathing more than affection and esteem.

Discussion of negative ads rarely touches on substance. We don't ask if an ad is accurate or misleading, only if it says something unkind about the opposition.

Welcome to real-world politics, boys and girls. The war on negative ads is an assault on full disclosure -- an attempt to suppress the truth. If a candidate consistently seeks to augment Washington's power, while masquerading as an outsider, the public is entitled to know that.

If a man who's running for the job of leader of the free world has a penchant for equivocation and broken promises, voters need to know that, as well.

On what are we to base our votes, if not on a candidate's record, comments and associations? The last thing we can expect from a politician is true confessions. ("Let me tell you about the campaign cash and personal favors I took from a savings-and-loan swindler.") If an opponent won't tell us about a candidate's flaws, who will?

Before I vote, I want to know the bad and the ugly, as well as the good. I want to know if a candidate's stand the day before yesterday contradicts his current position and whether his off-hand remarks undercut what are professed to be deeply held beliefs.

Candidates need to be tempered in the fires of a tough campaign. Once elected, will the media run positive campaigns against their policy proposals? (The media always exempt themselves from their stricture against negative campaigning.) If a candidate can't take the heat on the campaign trail, how will he function in office?

Bush and McCain are preparing each other for the general election, which promises to be a bloody brawl. When it comes to the politics of personal evisceration, both are novices next to Al Gore.

When a candidate is deliberately misquoted, when his record is misrepresented, when his opponent tells outright lies or engages in subtle distortion, he has every right to protest.

But let's end this incessant caterwauling of "he said that about me (Oh, boo-hoo)" and the hypocrisy of condemning the other side's criticism as an attack, while we unleash the rhetorical Dobermans.

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