Can a civil campaign work?


I've been around politics a long time -- both as an up-close observer and as a participant. Nevertheless, we probably share many of the same concerns about the tone political television advertising has taken.

There probably never was a time when candidates debated the issues, all the issues, and nothing but the issues. In 1864, Harper's published a list of terms used by Lincoln's opponents to describe him in that election year: "Filthy Story-Teller, Despot, Liar, Thief, Braggart, Buffoon, Usurper, Monster, Ignoramus Abe, Old Scoundrel, Perjurer, Robber, Swindler, Tyrant, Fiend, Butcher."

But I believe that political campaigns should not be about destroying your opponent through personal attacks.

In an ideal world, political campaigns would give voters a sense of who the candidate is, and would provide them with information about the candidate's qualifications. They would help the voters evaluate a candidate's past public record, if any. They would allow the candidates to present their views on the important issues of the day, as well as let them see how the candidates compare in the views. And they would give the voters a chance to learn what the candidates plan to do in the office they seek.

Instead, in the comfort of their living rooms, voters are asked to sit through the sort of name-calling they wouldn't tolerate from their own children. And then we wonder why people tune out on politics.

Coming off [the Senate race of] 1996, I was determined that the next statewide campaign in New Jersey would be different.

So I issued a pledge to clean up campaigning in New Jersey. I said I would run an issues-oriented campaign in 1997, and challenged anyone else who ran to commit to the same thing. I asked the Eagleton Institute of Politics at Rutgers to explore how we could accomplish that goal.

Early in 1997, Eagleton convened a day-long forum. As a result of the discussion that day, guidelines and structures did emerge. Probably the most significant was the formation of the "Issues Index" by the respected organization Leadership New Jersey.

They identified the five issues of greatest concern to New Jersey voters, and then evaluated all campaign advertisements against that list. Every other week during the campaign, the "Issues Index" would evaluate the extent to which our ads stuck to the issues, provided verifiable claims, and judge whether the messages were advocacy, comparative, or attack. Both my eventual opponent, State Senator Jim McGreevey, and I agreed to participate in this process.

[Annenberg School Dean Kathleen Hall] Jamieson briefed reporters covering the campaign on what the evaluations would include.

The people of New Jersey noticed. In a poll taken after last year's election, Eagleton found that fully 70 percent of voters felt the tone of the 1997 campaign was more positive than in 1996.

But there seems to be a very practical -- and very real -- barrier to seeing a widespread movement toward more positive campaigns. Voter turn-out last year was down significantly from four years earlier.

So we have to ask if an issues-based campaign is too boring. After all, we live in an era when

Jerry Springer's tape, "Too Hot for TV," sells half-a-million copies at $19.95 apiece.

Politicians seem to be faced with a paradox. Voters say they want more positive campaigns. But an argument can be made that voters don't seem to become engaged by them. And that makes it tougher to convince candidates that positive is the best way to go.

Christine Todd Whitman is governor of New Jersey. This is excerpted from remarks she delivered March 16 at the Annenberg School for Communication.

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Originally published on April 2, 1998