Are ‘Negative’ Ads Bad?

What is this silly preoccupation so many politicians have with so-called negative campaigning? And, what’s all this hubbub about the so-called negative campaigning being conducted by the North Carolina Republican Party against Barack Obama?

As Steve Chapman of Reason writes, there are “only two tests voters should apply to any campaign attack: Is it true, and is it important?” He’s right. Voters learn about candidates through advertising. As long as the information presented is true, what’s the big deal? Voters can decide for themselves whether the information is relevant.

Although there have been plenty of allegations of negative campaigning by the two Democrat presidential candidates against each other, let’s look at the most timely example of alleged negative campaigning.

The GOP’s presumptive presidential nominee John McCain is denouncing the North Carolina Republican Party for running a fact-based ad critical of Barack Obama. Reuters reports McCain said the state party was “out of touch with reality” for refusing to pull the ad.

In an NBC interview aired on Friday, the Arizona senator said he has done all he can to persuade the state party to cancel the television ad that criticizes Obama as “too extreme” because of controversial remarks made by his former pastor, the Rev. Jeremiah Wright.

“They’re not listening to me because they’re out of touch with reality and the Republican Party. We are the party of Abraham Lincoln, Theodore Roosevelt and Ronald Reagan and this kind of campaigning is unacceptable,” McCain told NBC’s “Today” Show.

And?

The ad (video available here) shows actual footage of Rev. Jeremiah Wright, the now-retired pastor of a church Obama attended for decades, engaged in one of his well-publicized hateful, anti-American rants. The ad calls Obama “too extreme for North Carolina” and notes that “for 20 years, Barack Obama sat in his pew, listening to his pastor” while displaying a photo of the two men together. It then shows video footage of Wright’s “God damn America!” sermon.

So, what’s so unfair about the ad?

The ad truthfully associates Obama with Wright. What’s wrong with that? After Wright’s sermons began getting attention on the campaign trail, Obama suddenly began criticizing those sermons. In his “A More Perfect Union” speech on March 18, Obama said Wright’s sermons

expressed a profoundly distorted view of this country – a view that sees white racism as endemic, and that elevates what is wrong with America above all that we know is right with America; a view that sees the conflicts in the Middle East as rooted primarily in the actions of stalwart allies like Israel, instead of emanating from the perverse and hateful ideologies of radical Islam.

That’s fair enough, but Obama expressly refuses to distance himself from the man he identifies as his spiritual mentor. “I can no more disown him than I can disown the black community…[and] my white grandmother,” he said.

One could argue that it would be silly for Obama to disown Wright. For years, Obama used his association with Wright in order to advance in Chicago politics. The damage is already done. That’s the risk one runs when one hitches one’s future to the career of another.

Of course you can’t hold a candidate responsible for everything those associated with him say, but when a candidate really seems to enjoy the presence of grievance-mongering people (for example, Obama’s wife Michelle) who show disdain, if not outright venomous contempt for America, people are entitled to judge that candidate based on those associations.

Maybe they’ll think it’s important; maybe they’ll think it isn’t. Apparently Senator McCain doesn’t think that’s right.

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