The Washington Post

A political world where only positive ads could be run would be absolutely terrible

This is a frame grab from a recent Romney campaign ad. By contrast, the Republican National Committee has a separate spot using a softer approach to win over disappointed Obama voters. (AP Photo)

In a piece over the weekend profiling John Hickenlooper, WaPo's Dan Balz quotes the Colorado governor, at length, decrying the effect of negative ads on political campaigns.

“What we’re doing now is depressing the product category of democracy,” said Hickenlooper about the effect of negative ads. “People turn off the news, stop reading in-depth magazine articles — especially young people. Look at the increasing reluctance of young people to vote. I think a lot of that is directly, you can lay it at the feet of these negative campaigns and relentless attack ads.”

“I think that the system has created an intensity of conflict," said Hickenlooper. " I don’t think it’s sustainable over a long period. People will become so jaded and disillusioned they won’t support anything and we will begin to slip behind.”

“The attack ad has become the kind of utility kit for almost every statewide campaign in the country now,” said Hickenlooper.

You get the idea.

Here's a radical idea: Hickenlooper's vitriol over negative ads is misguided. And, if given the choice between a world in which only positive ads could be run and one in which negative ads and positive ads could be run, a voter should just the latter option 100 times out of 100.

Here's why. Elections are about choices. The best way to make an informed choice is to know as much good (and bad) information about the candidates as possible.

Take it out of the political context for a minute. When you are going on a trip and shopping online for a hotel, would you prefer to read only the positive reviews about the place you are thinking about staying? No way.   You want -- and, if you are Mrs. Fix, crave -- the negative reviews too. Once you read the good and the bad, then you make your own decision. You might decide that the people writing the negative reviews sound likes cranks who are just sour about everything. Or maybe you decide that the positive reviews feel a little too similar to the hotel's promotional materials for you. Whatever. The point is you harvest a bunch of different opinions and then make your own decision.

Now, zoom yourself back into the political world. Getting rid of all negative ads -- as Hickenlooper wants to do -- means that you would be, essentially, forced to decide between two candidates based largely on their promotional materials. Positive ads tell the best case story of a candidate -- and that's often as far (if not further) from the truth then most negative ads.  A candidate running for office at age 24 who has never held a job inside or outside elected office? That's a "fresh-faced outsider" in a world of only positive ads. A candidate who moves into a state/district to run for office? That's someone whose "chose to live in this terrific community."

All of the above is not to say that negative ads are a good and great thing for democracy. They can, as Hickenlooper argues, have dampening effects on turnout as voters get sick of all the negativity. And, there are some that cross the line from tough attack to unfair character assassination.

But, we now live in a fact-checking political culture. Not only do most media organizations employ a fact-checker to investigate claims made by politicians -- Glenn Kessler plays that role for WaPo -- but the Internet allows any one curious enough to investigate claims being made in ads.

I am not saying that we should live in a political culture in which only negative ads are run. But, I am saying that it would be just as bad if we lived in the world Hickenlooper envisions in which only positive ads could be run.

The best way to make up your mind about a particular race is to look at all the information -- positive and negative-- being put out by each candidate (and their allies) and make your own assessment of which of the two (or more) with whom you agree.  That's the political world we currently live in and, no, it's not perfect. But, it's a heck of a lot better than the alternatives.

Chris Cillizza writes “The Fix,” a politics blog for the Washington Post. He also covers the White House.



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