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  Attack Ads Carpet TV; High Road Swept Away

By Howard Kurtz
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, October 20, 1998; Page A01

Sen. Alfonse M. D'Amato (R-N.Y.) is a liar who cut Medicare, raised property taxes, acted "just like a bully taking lunch money from hungry kids" and "doesn't really care about you or your family."

Rep. Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.), D'Amato's opponent, is soft on child pornographers, wants less jail time for violent criminals, likes foreign aid for Mongolia and is "a New York City liberal" who backed the three largest tax increases in American history.

Jeb Bush, the Republican nominee for governor of Florida, is bankrolled by Big Tobacco, is in the gun lobby's pocket and sides with heartless insurance companies. His Democratic opponent, Lt. Gov. Buddy MacKay, supported a tax on senior citizens, a tax on hospital stays, even a tax on burglar alarms and, furthermore, is "not your buddy."

America is again being carpet-bombed by political ads, many of them fiercely negative, and these are some of the politicians taking -- and inflicting -- the hits. The themes vary from race to race, from education and the environment to health care and gun control, but many of the commercials oversimplify and distort the opponent's position.

For all the Beltway talk about the midterm elections serving as a referendum on President Clinton, the airwaves are filled with old-fashioned ideological warfare and attempts at demonization. One Democrat, Jay Inslee (Wash.), has assailed Rep. Rick White (R) for voting for impeachment hearings, saying this "will drag us through months and months of more mud." A dozen Republicans have attacked Clinton in their ads, and a larger number have indirectly invoked the White House sex scandal through "family values" spots. But predictions that Clinton's grand jury testimony would flicker on ads throughout the land have faded as candidates have sought refuge in tried-and-true issues.

"It's ball control," said Mike Murphy, a GOP media consultant whose clients include Bush. "It's one side trying to move the ball to a favorable issue. We like it when we're talking about crime, taxes and welfare reform. Democrats like it when we run an ad saying we're not trying to cut Social Security."

Frank Greer, a Democratic media strategist working for MacKay, maintained that "people have developed a sensitivity and perhaps an immunity to the harsh negative attacks. But when it's such an overwhelming amount, it gets through."

Viewers, however, are making distinctions. A study by the University of Pennsylvania's Annenberg Public Policy Center found that people are more upset by one-sided attack ads than two-sided contrast ads that include both an attack and a defense of the candidate's position. When shown an attack ad on Social Security reform, just over a third said it was responsible. But two-thirds said they viewed a contrast ad on the same issue as responsible.

There is a cookie-cutter quality to many of this season's ads, with so many candidates surrounded by schoolchildren it looks like an army of teachers is running for office. And a striking number of commercials are recycling the greatest hits of the past.

Several ads feature the visage of the Democrats' favorite bogeyman. In Hawaii, Rep. Neil Abercrombie (D) ran this spot against GOP challenger Gene Ward: "He's promised his first vote in Congress will elect Newt Gingrich as speaker. Ward's first vote will support Newt Gingrich's anti-Hawaii agenda."

An ad for Sen. Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.) uses a photo of Gingrich in declaring: "Since 1993, extremists in Congress have tried over 100 times to restrict a woman's right to choose. Now they're behind Senate candidate Matt Fong's campaign." Fong's commercial responded that Boxer "is not telling the truth. I respect a woman's right to choose in the first trimester. Unlike my opponent, I oppose indiscriminate late-term abortions."

Some Democrats have trotted out the old charge that Republicans tried to cut $270 billion from Medicare -- a staple of the 1996 Clinton campaign that distorted the GOP plan to slow the rate of growth in the medical insurance program. Health maintenance organizations are an especially hot issue this year, with "bureaucrats" -- sometimes literally pictured as rubber-stamping boobs -- drawing Democratic fire.

"Insurance company bureaucrats will keep playing doctor because Congressman Jim Bunning [R] voted to let insurance companies make medical decisions instead of doctors," says an ad for Kentucky Senate candidate Scotty Baesler (D).

"Whose side is Jeb Bush on? He stands with the insurance companies and opposes holding HMOs accountable when they deny needed care," a MacKay ad says.

In a more emotional approach, an ad for Georgia Senate candidate Michael Coles (D) features a woman named Jodi Garrison, who says her newborn daughter died because her HMO refused to approve a delivery by Caesarean section. But the ad does not explain the cause of death, and when the HMO disputed the charge, the Coles campaign admitted to the Associated Press that it had interviewed only Garrison and her lawyer.

Republican attack ads tend to focus on the old staples of crime and taxes. Georgia gubernatorial candidate Guy Millner (R) fired this shot at his Democratic rival, state Sen. Roy Barnes: "Barnes's vote allowed convicted drug dealers to stay free on bail. Back on the streets, selling drugs to our children."

In a replay of a common 1996 tactic, California gubernatorial candidate Dan Lungren (R) used the father of a murder victim to criticize his opponent, Lt. Gov. Gray Davis (D), for attempting to claim credit for the state's "three strikes and you're out" law.

When Democrats return fire on crime, it is often over the issue of gun control. A Boxer ad called Fong (R) "the gun lobby's favorite candidate for the Senate. Because he's against new bans on Saturday night specials and assault weapons."

In a typical assault on taxes, D'Amato reprised a common 1994 ad by accusing Schumer of casting the deciding vote for Clinton's tax increase the previous year. (The measure passed by one vote, leaving more than 200 Democrats vulnerable to this charge.) A Schumer spot responded that he had voted to cut taxes for 2 million New York families (by boosting the earned income tax credit, part of the same measure).

The most vituperative campaigns have turned into televised tennis matches in which each contender lobs charges of lying at the other. In Florida, a MacKay ad asks: "Tired of negative politics? Unfortunately, Jeb Bush has resorted to false negative ads. . . . We just can't trust Jeb Bush to be governor."

A Bush ad responds: "Buddy MacKay is ignoring the truth to smear Jeb Bush." And Bush himself says in another spot: "Buddy MacKay's negative ads aren't true. And his personal attacks will not do a thing to make Florida a better place. He doesn't have solutions, only attacks."

The New York race, perhaps the nation's nastiest, provides a case study in how a lawmaker's record can be selectively strip-mined for seemingly outrageous votes that are out of context but not technically false.

Thus, Schumer attacks D'Amato for opposing federal funding for 100,000 new police officers -- because the senator, like many Republicans, voted against Clinton's 1994 crime bill as laden with pork-barrel spending. Similarly, D'Amato's charge that Schumer supports less jail time for violent criminals is based on a 1995 vote steering federal funding to states that establish mandatory minimum sentences -- which Schumer says he opposed because New York didn't have such sentences.

Both men exhume ancient history. D'Amato's accusation that Schumer is soft on child pornography stems from a 1977 measure in the state Assembly that Schumer says was also opposed by libraries and publishers as too broad (and was supported by only 13 of 131 lawmakers). Schumer responds that D'Amato opposed a ban on importing such pornography -- again because he voted against the 1994 crime bill that the congressman helped write.

D'Amato accuses Schumer of raising property taxes, but the Democrat says his vote -- which took place in the Assembly 20 years ago -- was to give local communities the authority to raise such taxes to pay for education. Schumer, in turn, lambastes D'Amato for boosting property taxes -- but that was in the 1970s, when the senator was a Long Island town supervisor.

And both men accuse each other of lying about taxes. The truth is that in their 18-year careers, both have voted for more than $250 billion in tax increases.

Staff researcher Ben White contributed to this report.


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