Those who take a certain pleasure in denouncing the evils of negative political advertising should have spent the last week in South Carolina. They could have plunked down in front of TV sets — especially during morning, early-evening, and late-evening news programs — and by adroit use of the remote control, seen one negative spot after another.
They could have watched again and again the Ron Paul campaign’s stinging denunciation of Newt Gingrich for, among other things, taking $1.6 million from Freddie Mac.
They could have seen a similar assault on Gingrich from the pro-Romney Restore Our Future super PAC (by the way, how do you restore something which by definition doesn’t yet exist?).
They could have taken delight in the Rick Santorum campaign’s ad highlighting similarities between Mitt Romney’s record on issues and that of Barack Obama, or in Paul’s stinging ad denouncing Santorum as a “big-government conservative.”
All of these ads, you may notice, targeted the three candidates who, coming out of Iowa and New Hampshire, were considered by themselves and others as having some chance of winning the nomination: Romney, Gingrich, and Santorum. Left largely unattacked were Paul, who confesses he has no chance to win, and Rick Perry, who withdrew Thursday morning.
There is a near-unanimous sentiment among the high-minded that negative advertising is a bad thing. It pollutes the air even more than carbon dioxide. It breeds cynicism about politics and government. It is somehow unfair.
In response, let me say a few words in praise of negative ads.
First, elections are an adversarial business, zero-sum games in which only one candidate can win and all the others must lose. Sometimes it’s smart for competitors to concede points to their opponents. But it’s irrational to expect one side to sing consistent praises of the other.
In second-grade elections, it may be considered bragging to vote for yourself. But it is silly to expect adults to behave this way.
It is especially foolish to expect that candidates who seem headed to win elections should escape criticism on television. Every candidate has weak points and makes mistakes. It’s not dirty pool for opponents to point them out.
Second, it is said that negative ads can be inaccurate and unfair. Well, yes — but so can positive ads. An inaccurate or unfair ad invites refutation and rebuttal, by opponents or in the media, and can boomerang against the attacker. So candidates have an incentive to make attacks that can be sustained.
Sometimes voters respond negatively even to fair attacks. That’s why in multi-candidate races, an attack by candidate A on candidate B can hurt A as well as B, and end up helping candidate C or D.
That’s why many campaigns hesitate before attacking. And it also gives them a motive to make attacks that can withstand scrutiny because they are accurate and fair.