Fighting Fair

Kevin Drum thinks Kerry has fallen behind because the Democrats are unwilling to play dirty like the Republicans:

For all the hatred of Bush among liberals, we still aren’t as dedicated to our cause as conservatives are to theirs. After all, they’re dedicated enough to figure that fighting fair is just a sign of weakness. For better or worse, we’re not quite there yet.

Steve Bainbridge has a whole list of examples to the contrary.

I find the argument rather amusing, frankly. Both sides always think their side is being too nice and letting the other side get away with mudslinging. Largely, this is because negative attacks made by one’s own candidate are “the truth” whereas those made on the other side are “dirty lies,” “distortions,” or “the politics of personal destruction.” It’s just cognitive dissonance at its finest.

The Democrats point to things like the infamous “Willie Horton” ads from the 1988 race, which they blame on Lee Atwater. They conveniently forget that Al Gore used the same charges in the Democratic primaries.

Negative politics are hardly new, going back at least to charges that Thomas Jefferson was having an affair with one of his slaves. In modern times, it’s hard to think of a dirtier ad than the “mushroom cloud” spot that Democrat Lyndon Johnson ran against Barry Goldwater.

Kerry and company point to the harping on his Senate defense votes by Zell Miller and others at the GOP convention, arguing that they’re taken out of context. But they never explain what it is the context was. Further, they claim that pointing out that Kerry voted against important weapons programs is a challenge to his “patriotism,” which is absurd. Meanwhile, charges that Bush “misled us into war” for political purposes are viewed as perfectly legitimate. One can’t have it both ways.

FILED UNDER: Campaign 2004, Political Theory, , , , , , , ,
James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College and a nonresident senior fellow at the Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security at the Atlantic Council. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm vet. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.


  1. Matt says:

    As some have pointed out before, Kerry (as well as his wife) have no idea how to handle having their comments questioned. This is largely because, as members of the mega-rich, nobody ever questions them on anything. Kerry just does not know how to respond when someone says “defend your Christmas in Cambodia story,” or “why did you miss most of the senate intelligence committee hearings?,” or “why do you want to raise my taxes?” Currently, Kerry’s response to all these questions is not an answer, but a complaint about how people are smearing, lying and questioning his patriotism. He ends up looking like a cry baby, Bush essentially ignores him and keeps mostly positive, and the voters want to vote for positive, not for whining.

  2. Jack Okie says:

    James, will you please provide an example or two of negative Bush campaigning? And accurate portrayals of your opponent’s record don’t count.

    And why was it “negative” to criticize the release of a convicted murderer on an *unsupervised* weekend pass? Especially since the convicted murderer confirmed the folly by raping a women and assaulting her husband.

  3. James Joyner says:

    Jack: I rest my case.

  4. John Thacker says:

    “Who rules us with an iron rod? / Who moves at Satan’s beck and nod? /
    Who heeds not man, Who heeds not God? / Van Buren, Van Buren!
    Who would his friends, his country sell / Do other deeds too base to tell /
    Deserves the lowest place in hell / Van Buren, Van Buren!”– William Henry
    Harrison campaign song, showing that negative campaigning is nothing new.