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Jewish World Review Feb. 28, 2000/ 22 Adar 1, 5760

Kathleen Parker

Kathleen Parker
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Nasty politics? Americans like it down, dirty

http://www.jewishworldreview.com --
THAT WHITE NOISE you hear these days when you turn on the television is the incessant whining of our "presidential" candidates. I feel your embarrassment, fellow Americans, as our would-be leaders squabble over who plays nastiest.

Who cares?

Politics is about negative campaigning. Grow up.

Like most Americans, I squirmed through the recent Republican debate in Columbia, S.C., as candidates George W. Bush and John McCain traded "oh, yeahs?" As in, "Oh, yeah? Well, what about that `negative' flier Mrs. Smith found under her windshield wiper today?"

"Oh, yeah? Well, what about that `negative' TV ad Mr. Jones saw today, after you said you were taking it off the air?"

For 15 minutes, Bush and McCain complained about each other's negative attacks, while candidate Alan Keyes, stuck between them, tried to look dignified.

This isn't a debate, I thought as I watched; it's a childish spat. Fortunately, the moment wasn't lost on the world. Thanks to CNN and ringmaster Larry King, 33 other countries were witness to this tantrum.

I know, I have a lump in my throat, too.

The only reassuring moment, and possibly the best line to emerge from the campaign thus far, came when Keyes interrupted: "Could I say something substantive here?"

That's a good suggestion for future debates. Meanwhile, Americans don't really mind nasty. This is, after all, the country that spawned Jerry Springer and made professional wrestling a national pastime. Americans enjoy a fight. Absent options, they can even stay awake during a presidential debate. The nastier, the better.

What they don't enjoy is grown men wasting their time, whining about how mean the other guy is.

And don't think Republicans have a corner on such sandbox shenanigans.

Al Gore and Bill Bradley were just as bad -- or just as good, depending on how you feel about mud-wrestling -- during their recent debate at Harlem's Apollo Theater.

With each point, Gore and Bradley retaliated with barbs as well as physical evidence to back up their attacks -- a list of contradictions or an embarrassing voting record.

Mudslinging?

Yes.

Negative?

You bet.

Boring?

Not once.

Their debate, far more animated than anything the Republicans have managed thus far, was a good, old-fashioned political brawl. It was entertainment, a big bang for Americans' buck.

The fact is, negative campaigning has a rich and tolerated history in American politics. The American people understand campaigning for what it is and pick their candidates more or less on the issues.

Whining about negative campaigning is a waste of time. Politicians on the receiving end may even benefit, because most Americans see the attacker as a jerk. Nobody likes the bad sport, the bully who picks on the other guy.

Psychiatrists who have studied how negative campaigning affects voters have found that the attacker is shooting himself in the foot. Voters see the attacker as hostile, while they view his target as sympathetic.

As researcher Nicholas Beechcroft explained in the May 1997 Psychiatric Journal: "Most people find negative campaigning quite transparent, considering it as dishonest and untrustworthy. However, despite seeing it as less ethical, a majority find it more informative."

And entertaining. Give me negative or give me a sleeping pill. Americans ultimately will make up their minds based on the issues; meanwhile, they enjoy a good fight.

Which is to say, we really don't mind mudslinging all that much.

What we mind is time wasted talking about it.


JWR contributor Kathleen Parker can be reached by clicking here.

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