How candidates play the game says more than any stump speech

here are many ways to run a campaign and many ways for a candidate to convince people to vote for him. First, a candidate can defend his record and outline the policies he would advocate if elected. Bill Clinton’s 1992 manifesto, “Putting People First,” for instance, laid out nearly all of his goals for his first term, while the Republicans’ 1994 “Contract With America” described with remarkable specificity what they would do if they seized control of Congress. Second, a candidate can argue (usually indirectly) that his character and personality qualify him for the office he seeks. Ronald Reagan’s affability was one of his greatest advantages over Jimmy Carter and Walter Mondale, while Clinton’s ability to connect with ordinary people distinguished him as a candidate.

Third, a candidate can attack his opponent’s proposals and record. In this election, Sen. Kerry has fiercely criticized President Bush’s decision to go to war in Iraq and to cut taxes disproportionately benefiting the rich, while Bush has condemned Kerry’s liberal Senate voting record and inconsistent positions on Iraq. Finally, a candidate can attempt to worsen voters’ opinions of his opponent’s character and personality. Lyndon Johnson’s famous “Daisy ad” sought to discredit Barry Goldwater as too extreme and unstable to be entrusted with the presidency, while George H. W. Bush and Bob Dole both emphasized Clinton’s alleged mendacity.

I have arranged these different options available to candidates from most honorable to least. The presentation of policy proposals to the public is supposed to be what campaigns are all about, allowing the electorate to learn about the candidates’ positions and cast votes based on the fit between those positions and their own. A candidate’s contentions about his values and temperament are less trustworthy than his policy stances, but still useful for voters seeking insights into how the candidate would behave if elected. Attacks on an opponent’s policy proposals and record also augment the information available to voters, but are prone to distortion and indicate a conscious choice to tear down one’s rival instead of highlighting one’s own appeal. Finally, when a candidate assaults his opponent’s personality and character, it shows a determination to win at all costs — to triumph even if this means savaging a decent man.

Unfortunately, as a recent New Yorker article describes, the effectiveness of these options is inversely related to their honorableness. Only 10 percent or so of voters possess coherent political belief systems that allow them to match candidates’ positions to their own policy preferences in any sort of rational manner. Many more people decide for whom to cast their ballots on the basis of the “idiosyncratic clusters of ideas and attitudes” that they have come to hold. These clusters are influenced somewhat by policy considerations, but much more by partisan affiliation, media coverage and campaign spin. As a result, negative campaigning — especially when directed at an opponent’s character rather than his positions — is typically more effective at swinging votes than positive policy-oriented politics.

The campaigns that candidates choose to run, then, offer valuable insights into who they really are. Do they take the high road and focus on substantive policy issues, even though this is not the best way to win votes? Or do they plunge into the mire, disparaging their opponents’ values and temperament because they know that this is the most direct — though least ethical — route to victory?

In this election cycle, Sen. Kerry has been neither an exemplar of high-minded campaigning nor a disciple of the Machiavellian school of politics. He has described in considerable detail his plans for Iraq, homeland security, fiscal policy and health care, and has generally avoided harsh personal attacks on President Bush. But he has also argued that his courage under fire decades ago is an important qualification for the presidency, forcefully criticized the president’s record, and, in recent weeks, attempted to link the president’s purported errors to character flaws like stubbornness and detachment from reality.

Though Kerry may be no saint on the campaign trail, Bush has shown himself to be almost devilish by comparison. He almost never mentions what his domestic-policy goals would be during a second term, and his foreign-policy proposals are no more elaborate than staying the course in Iraq and being resolute in the war on terror. He has not only violently criticized Kerry’s record and plans, but has done so in a deliberately unfair manner — for example, by counting a handful of tax hikes that Kerry supported as 98 votes for higher taxes, and by claiming that the modest health-care reforms Kerry has proposed would amount to the socialization of American medicine. He argues that his unwavering determination and personal likeability are good reasons to re-elect him. And, most damningly, he has initiated and encouraged a concerted Republican effort to slander Kerry’s bravery and leadership ability. Bush surrogates have asserted that Kerry’s Vietnam decorations were undeserved, while Bush himself has harped more about Kerry’s “flip-flops” and “mixed messages” than any other issue.

Politics, of course, is a hard-knuckled sport. But how candidates play the game reveals more about them than any issue brief or stump speech. Over the past several months, Sen. Kerry and President Bush have made their choices about the kinds of campaigns they wish to run. In a few weeks, the voters will decide which candidate’s choices to reward and which candidate’s choices to rebuke. My hope is that, for once, voters will reject the practitioners of the worst kind of politics and elect the candidate who has appealed to their aspirations rather than their fears.

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