Meg Whitman Is Right

Meg Whitman refuses to take down her negative ads before next Tuesday’s election. She’s right.

at least about negative ads.

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.

Author: Jonathan Zasloff

Jonathan Zasloff teaches Torts, Land Use, Environmental Law, Comparative Urban Planning Law, Legal History, and Public Policy Clinic - Land Use, the Environment and Local Government. He grew up and still lives in the San Fernando Valley, about which he remains immensely proud (to the mystification of his friends and colleagues). After graduating from Yale Law School, and while clerking for a federal appeals court judge in Boston, he decided to return to Los Angeles shortly after the January 1994 Northridge earthquake, reasoning that he would gladly risk tremors in order to avoid the average New England wind chill temperature of negative 55 degrees. Professor Zasloff has a keen interest in world politics; he holds a PhD in the history of American foreign policy from Harvard and an M.Phil. in International Relations from Cambridge University. Much of his recent work concerns the influence of lawyers and legalism in US external relations, and has published articles on these subjects in the New York University Law Review and the Yale Law Journal. More generally, his recent interests focus on the response of public institutions to social problems, and the role of ideology in framing policy responses. Professor Zasloff has long been active in state and local politics and policy. He recently co-authored an article discussing the relationship of Proposition 13 (California's landmark tax limitation initiative) and school finance reform, and served for several years as a senior policy advisor to the Speaker of California Assembly. His practice background reflects these interests: for two years, he represented welfare recipients attempting to obtain child care benefits and microbusinesses in low income areas. He then practiced for two more years at one of Los Angeles' leading public interest environmental and land use firms, challenging poorly planned development and working to expand the network of the city's urban park system. He currently serves as a member of the boards of the Santa Monica Mountains Conservancy (a state agency charged with purchasing and protecting open space), the Los Angeles Center for Law and Justice (the leading legal service firm for low-income clients in east Los Angeles), and Friends of Israel's Environment. Professor Zasloff's other major activity consists in explaining the Triangle Offense to his very patient wife, Kathy.

2 thoughts on “Meg Whitman Is Right”

  1. "Whitman said that her negative ads are not personal, but rather criticize Jerry Brown’s policies."

    To be negative, all an ad must do is convey the message, implicitly or explicitly, "Don't vote for X," more than "Vote for Y." Doesn't matter if it's policy criticism, mudslinging, or blatant lies. If the ad is about the opponent, it's negative, i.e. intended to tear down rather than build up.

  2. I really wish people would learn what a semantic dispute is. Here MW is right, as is JZ. Although those negative ads with the horror-show voice-overs are nauseating in the extreme, there's nothing wrong with negative ads per se. If I'm a liar, there's nothing wrong with my opponent running an ad that says I'm a liar. What matters is truthfulness; a truthful ad criticizing my opponent is better than a dishonest ad attributing some positive trait to me. In fact, some research seems to indicate that negative ads do inform people (though that'd, again, only go for the truthful ones…)

    I do wish they'd ditch the annoying, creepy, evil voice-overs…

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