A crowd of women jeered Republican gubernatorial candidate Meg Whitman when she refused today to promise she’d pull her negative TV ads, even as “Today” show host Matt Lauer and an audience of thousands of women encouraged her to do so.
Given the way in which the media is covering politics, to say that “negative advertising” is a problem really just misses the point. Whitman said that her “negative” ads are not personal, but rather criticize Jerry Brown’s policies. Lauer dismissed such an objection as “semantics.”
That dismissal says more about the obtuseness of Lauer and the rest of the media that it does about Whitman. The media can’t tell the difference between an ad that says “my opponent wants to raise taxes” and “my opponent supports terrorism.” There is a difference between attacking your opponent’s character and attacking his policies. The media can’t understand that, because as far as it’s concerned, arguing about policy is arguing about personality. But that’s its problem, not Whitman’s.
None of this means, of course, that Whitman’s ads are okay: they’re not. But that’s because they are either unshamedly two-faced or completely misleading. Whitman ran ads in English saying that her primary opponent was soft on illegal immigration; now, she runs ads in Spanish supposedly denouncing Arizona’s immigration law. She criticizes Brown for being in the pocket of public sector unions, and then exempts some police unions in order to get their endorsement. She showed Bill Clinton’s 1992 criticism of Brown for “raising taxes” when she knew that Clinton’s attack was false. She suggests that the state’s universities can be fully funded by reducing welfare benefits — a mathematically laughable claim. Even Pete Wilson was never this manipulative or deceitful.
But none of this means that there is anything wrong per se with negative ads. In fact, it helps Democrats because whenever the argument is about policy, Democrats have an advantage. Republicans have gone to town since the Lee Atwater era on character assassination. That’s what “swiftboating” is: it’s what telling Democratic candidates to “man up” is. It’s what Republicans do; it’s what Karl Rove specializes in. To be sure, at some point, policy and character attacks blend: I don’t know what else it is when a Republican cuts programs for abused and neglected kids so that he can give a tax cut to multimllionaires. But we’re far, far from that now.
So lay off Meg Whitman on this one. There are millions of good reasons to keep her far, far away from the Governor’s office. This isn’t one of them.