(RNS) This week in Washington, George W. Bush seized an
opportunity to announce his commitment to civility in government. If his
gala audience of Republican Party donors expected a bloodthirsty battle
cry, it heard instead a gentlemanly promise. "It is time to clean up the
toxic environment in Washington, D.C.," Bush said. "I will restore
respect and civility to our national politics."
Bravo! But why wait to bring civility to the White House? Right now,
Gov. Bush and Vice President Al Gore have a national stage upon which to
demonstrate its virtues.
Back before the caucuses and primaries, observers predicted one of
the most civil campaigns in recent history. Both Bush and Gore signed a
civility pledge in December, seemingly without a second thought. But as
the primaries heated up and votes became precious, bitterness replaced
civility. Attacks by surrogate, misrepresentation of facts, innuendo by
phone pollsters: the dirty tricks went on parade.
How do voters feel about negative campaigning? Polls show two
diametrically opposite reactions. People don't like it, but they respond
to it. And while negativity may excite some voters, the polls don't show
how many others are driven away by it.
Of course, no one looks away from a food fight, at first. But in the
fray, we search for more than a winner. We seek a leader who is able to
keep a cool head in the midst of controversy. Conflict can breed a
dangerous dynamic in which adversaries begin to reflect the worst values
of others in the ring. They stoop to conquer. This is not what we want
in a leader. And if the victory in November is ruthless and
dishonorable, the nation pays a price.
Negativity in campaigns doesn't necessarily end with Election Day.
Come January, politicians confronted with divided communities can't
immediately go to work with the business of government. They have to
heal divisions in order to get the citizenry behind an agenda. In recent
elections, those fissures have been so deep that one of the first
responses of the losing segment of the electorate is to find an
aggressive way of investigating the winner.
Political campaigns function as major arteries to the heart of our democracy. They contribute to a national sense of either health or
systemic disease. When campaigns, however rigorous and colorful, are
civil, they can enlighten voters and even inspire greater political
involvement. But take away civility, and political campaigns can foment
prejudice, disrupt communities and spew poison into the democratic
Candidates, one suspects, don't like negative campaigning. They know
that their names will be attached to the mudslinging for posterity. One
can imagine a candidate's discomfort in the campaign war room as
advisers, sensing a threat, push to go negative.
The story of Lee Atwater is instructive. As a Republican campaign
strategist for George Bush Sr., Atwater engineered the racist "Willie
Horton" ads that helped defeat Michael Dukakis in 1988. In the year
before Atwater's sadly premature death from brain cancer, he spent a lot
of precious time apologizing for that eruption of negative campaigning.
It is April now in an election year. The primaries have been
decisive, the presidential campaign is quiet, and our presumptive
nominees have retired for a few weeks of fund raising and talk. It is a
nice moment to declare beneficent intentions.
But it's not enough to simply affirm civility as a principle for
good times. Civility needs to drive all discussions, however heated, of
issues and records right up to the eve of Election Day.
The rewards for a higher standard in campaigning are many:
candidates with clearly articulated positions, an informed electorate
and a higher turnout at the polls. And for the victor, civility may
deliver a true mandate to govern, which is the greatest plum of all.
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