Dirty Politics in the 2008 Campaign

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Bill Moyers checks in with Journal contributor and director of the Annenberg Public Policy Center Kathleen Hall Jamieson on how going negative will play out in the final stretch to the 2008 election. 


BILL MOYERS: Welcome to the JOURNAL.

Remember that old song, “You take the high road and I’ll take the low road?” Well this week the McCain campaign came to the proverbial fork in the road and went both ways.

In their second debate Tuesday night Senator McCain swung hard at Barack Obama, hard but high. Yet out on the campaign trail he and Sarah Palin went negative big time, their punches aimed well below the belt, as Palin accused Obama of “palling around with terrorists who would target their own country.” She was referring to William Ayers, a radical opponent of the war in Vietnam whose militant acts occurred when Obama was eight years old and who later crossed paths with Obama when he became an educator and they lived in the same Chicago neighborhood.

The Obama campaign dipped into the past as well, releasing a short film reminding voters that John McCain was one of the notorious “Keating Five” — those U.S. Senators who intervened in a regulatory investigation during the humongous savings and loan crisis twenty years ago.

McCain’s people were upfront about their strategy. One of his top advisers said, “We have no choice. If we keep talking about the economic crisis we’re going to lose.” So, applying lipstick on the pit bull and holding their nose, they waded into the sewer.

Now voters reportedly hate all this, but it does work — more times than we like to admit. Is negative campaigning then the same as dirty politics? To discuss that, we have with us our regular JOURNAL contributor, Kathleen Hall Jamieson, Director of the Annenberg Public Policy Center at the University of Pennsylvania. Her many books include this one, DIRTY POLITICS: DECEPTION, DISTRACTION AND DEMOCRACY. Welcome back.


BILL MOYERS: Journalists all over the country this week were talking about the ugly turn that this campaign, in their judgment, has taken, about the disgusting things they heard and seen, the crowds. It’s getting ugly out there.

KATHLEEN HALL JAMIESON: It is getting ugly out there. And there should be a way for both campaigns to step up and very clearly say that these are the boundaries within which it is acceptable to work, and we will not work without them. There actually has been an ad on each side that’s called the other candidate and campaign “dishonorable.” That’s a pretty strong charge. But let’s keep it in context. Let’s go back to 1964.

BILL MOYERS: A campaign I know well.

KATHLEEN HALL JAMIESON: And not to the ad that everybody turns to, “The Daisy” ad. But let’s instead turn to the ad in which a little girl is shown licking an ice cream cone.

[1964 Johnson Campaign Ad] FEMALE NARRATOR: Do you know what people used to do? They used to explode atomic bombs in the air, now children should have lots of Vitamin A and calcium, but they shouldn’t have any strontium-90 or caesium-137. These things come from atomic bombs and their radioactive. They can make you die.

KATHLEEN HALL JAMIESON: That ad, like “The Daisy” ad, only aired once. But that ad, to me, is more problematic than the “The Daisy” ad because Goldwater and Johnson differed on the Test Ban Treaty. Johnson favored. Goldwater opposed. But what the ad suggests is that Goldwater favored putting strontium-90 in the ice cream cone of the little girl. Now, by comparison to that, what’s happening now, dishonorable, sleazy, highly problematic. It falls within a range but that we’ve seen before historically.

BILL MOYERS: When you watch politics as a scholar, did anything this week go beyond the boundary of your sense of propriety and offend your personally as a voter, as a citizen, as an American?

KATHLEEN HALL JAMIESON: What I respond to more so than the attacks and counterattacks about who knew whom where, and why, are those statements that are fundamentally deceptive about something that matters when you cast your vote.


KATHLEEN HALL JAMIESON: And that would affect governance. So, for example, when you have one side suggesting that the candidate on the other side wanted to privatize Social Security and that would have cut benefits in half for current seniors and it would have invested their money in the stock market so they’d be enmeshed in this crisis, probably losing their money. That’s the implication of the ad.

BILL MOYERS: The Obama ad about McCain’s position on Social Security and Medicare.

KATHLEEN HALL JAMIESON:Yes. And that’s a deeply deceptive ad.

[Obama Ad] FEMALE NARRATOR: John McCain voted three times in favor of privatizing social security. McCain says ‘I campaigned in support of President Bush’s proposal, cutting benefits in half, risking social security on the stock market.’

BILL MOYERS:What offends you about that?

KATHLEEN HALL JAMIESON: What offends me is that if you’re a current senior citizen and you look at that ad and you take it at face value, you would believe something that is untrue. The Bush proposal wouldn’t even have let you invest in these accounts. You weren’t eligible. So, first, it wouldn’t have affected you at all. Secondly, as a result, your benefits wouldn’t have been cut in half. And that projection for when there might have been a reduction in benefits would have been into the far distant future under some scenarios.

But more importantly, in the implication that that ad and the current financial context is and you’d be invested in the parts of the market that are now crashing. The Bush proposal would have put you into a category of investments that are not experiencing the same kinds of decline that you’re seeing right now.

Now, you can say, “I oppose the Bush proposal,” and there are many reasons to do it. But you can’t say legitimately that current seniors would have been affected by it at all. Now, that’s a form of deception that is extremely problematic. And I call that dirty politics.

BILL MOYERS:What about the other side?

KATHLEEN HALL JAMIESON: On the other side, there’s an ad that is still airing. And the implication of that ad is that Senator Obama is attacking the troops for killing civilians.

[McCain Campaign Ad] FEMALE NARRATOR: Who is Barack Obama? He says our troops in Afghanistan are…

BARACK OBAMA: Just air-raiding villages and killing civilians.

FEMALE NARRATOR: How dishonorable.

KATHLEEN HALL JAMIESON: Let me read to you what Senator Obama actually said in the real context. “We’ve got to get the job done there. And that requires us to have enough troops so that we’re not just air raiding villages and killing civilians, which is causing enormous problems there.”

He was talking about military strategy. He was talking about a need to increase the number of troops to have a different kind of strategy. That wasn’t an indictment of the troops. That was an indictment of the strategy. And this in a context in which the Defense Secretary, Secretary of Defense Robert Gates, has apologized for civilian casualties. That’s a consequential ad, if you believe that, you might draw a bad inference.

BILL MOYERS: But how is the audience to know? How does the audience ever catch up with the truth of this?

KATHLEEN HALL JAMIESON: The audience has to break out of the partisan media context that reinforces the belief that these ads are accurate.

BILL MOYERS: The audience can’t do that. The audience comes to a speech because it is partisan, right?

KATHLEEN HALL JAMIESON: Right. But you hope that that partisan audience has enough exposure to places that give you both sides so they’re able to hear the other side and is able to hear credible sources and accepts them as credible to indicate when their side is wrong and when the other side is wrong. It’s easy to hear those times in which the other side is wrong. It’s much harder to be in places to hear that your side is wrong, first, because increasingly we’re not going to those kinds of places.

But it’s also difficult because of the way we hunker down in our own ideology for us to hear when we — our own side is actually not telling us the truth. This is an outrageous deception about Senator Obama and if believed, consequential.

BILL MOYERS:Is it just dirty politics? Or is it negative campaigning to suggest that a United States Senator is un-American and a friend to terrorists?

KATHLEEN HALL JAMIESON: The notion that we would impugn the integrity of a person running for president on the other side, question their patriotism, is something that we all ought to step back from and say that is unacceptable. The evidence that one should have to mount to make that kind of case should be so clear and so overwhelming that it would persuade that person’s mother. And for practical purposes, those are charges that are out of bounds.

BILL MOYERS: Is there a yardstick for distinguishing negative campaigning and dirty politics? I mean, negative campaigning can be telling unpleasant truths about your opponent, right?

KATHLEEN HALL JAMIESON: Yeah, I don’t like the word “negative” at all. I’d really like to get rid of it in politics.

BILL MOYERS: And use what?

KATHLEEN HALL JAMIESON: I’d like to use the word “attack.” And attack can be perfectly legitimate. In fact, it’s the basis for making distinctions. There is a difference between Senator McCain and Senator Obama on Social Security. There’s a difference on healthcare reform. There’s a difference on tax policy. And all those differences can be pointed out in attack advertising that will help you make an informed judgment.

If it’s accurate, if it’s fair, if it’s relevant to government, those are legitimate uses of attacking. I wouldn’t call those negative. I don’t like the word “negative” because it blurs the dirty with the clean attacks. If we take attack out of politics, you’ll never be able to distinguish between the two candidates.

BILL MOYERS: This week, speakers at McCain rallies were consistently using Barack Obama’s full name, Barack Hussein Obama. Now, that is a fact. That is his name. What takes that into the realm of dirty politics?

KATHLEEN HALL JAMIESON: I worry whenever someone stands up and treats the name Hussein as if somehow that’s illegitimate, as if that constitutes an indictment. We’ve really failed when a name that many, many, many Americans have, a perfectly legitimate name, is somehow now automatically associated with terrorism. Why should it? Why does it?

BILL MOYERS:Well, it shouldn’t. No, I agree with-

KATHLEEN HALL JAMIESON: It means there’s something so wrong-

BILL MOYERS: What’s wrong with being a Muslim, for example?

KATHLEEN HALL JAMIESON: That, well, that’s the other problem. I mean, look, every time someone says, “Senator Obama is not a Muslim.” You know, how dare you say that he might be a Muslim? How do you hear that if you’re a Muslim? We ought to be able to say Senator Obama is Christian without making being a Muslim something that is something we’ve tagged as being a negative identification.

We’ve taken all these categories and we’ve let people use them to prompt inferences to tie to 9/11, tie to terrorism. And we’ve taken a whole part of our own community as a result, people around the world who identify with us as well, and we’ve labeled them on arbitrary grounds to be something that we ought to despise and worry about and oppose and react viscerally to. The failure in this discourse is that we even let these kinds of inferences sit out there unexamined when they first started percolating to the surface. I’d like to be able to use anybody’s name and not evoke 9/11 without a problem.

BILL MOYERS: There was an Obama film released this week that offended me as a journalist because they used the filmmaking process to suggest the credibility for the charge about McCain and the Keating Five that they wouldn’t have had in a 30-second commercial. Take a look at this.

 MALE NARRATOR [OBAMA CAMPAIGN AD]: If you think about what fraud is. Fraud is the creation of trust and then its betrayal.

KATHLEEN HALL JAMIESON: Well, this — first, this is a web ad of some sorts. I mean, I don’t know if you call something that long an ad. But it’s a web ad. You see it on the web. It’s not the documentary form that’s problematic. It’s the inference that’s invited by juxtaposition.

And this has been a week of juxtaposition. We’ve got William Ayers, Barack Obama’s friends in one set of claims. You’ve got all the scandals of the current weeks on Wall Street allied to McCain.

And we put them together, draw the inference that it’s causal, draw the inference that he really was responsible, not that there was a Keating Five, that he was the most responsible, and that somehow it’s linked to all of these current scandals that we have right now. And so what we have in this past week is a text, you know, kind of textbook case of guilty by association and argument from juxtaposition.

BILL MOYERS: Is that the pattern of consequential deception that emerged this week in both the stump speeches and the ad? Was there a theme to this week’s ugly politics?

KATHLEEN HALL JAMIESON: Well, the first theme to the ugly politics is deception about each other’s policy positions that will relate to governance.

That’s the first category this week. Meaningful policy deception. You draw inferences from those about the candidates’ stance, and you’re wrong. You draw inferences about what they’ll do in governance, and you’re wrong. The second category is this guilt by association and argument by visual juxtaposition.

And the American people need to say about that what relevance does any of that juxtaposition have for governance? First, what’s the inference and is it accurate? But secondly, does it pass the test of relevance even when you come down to what’s accurate? I’d like to say about all of these guilt-by-association moves, first, what are the basic facts? Let’s make sure we’ve got those right.

And then based on what we know, what do you infer about how they would act as president, about how they would engaged in policy decision making, about the policies they would offer? And if the answer is, I can’t find any way that it forecasts any of that, do we actually believe that because William Ayers hosted a coffee for Barack Obama and they served on a board together and they had some association of school reform efforts in Chicago, that Barack Obama supports what William Ayers did?

It reminds me of something that happened in 1964, but we have a change now. And one of the questions underlying all questions about dirty politics are, is it different or not? And here’s the difference. In 1964, the team that you were part of or the administration that you were a part of-


KATHLEEN HALL JAMIESON: Put together an ad that shows pictures of the Ku Klux Klan and burning crosses and Klansmen marching. And it’s very evocative. It’s very powerful. A drum is beating in the background.

MALE NARRATOR: “We represent the majority of the people in Alabama who hate niggerism, Catholicism, Judaism, and all the -isms in the whole world.” So said Robert Creel, Grand Dragon of the Alabama Ku Klux Klan. He also said, “I like Barry Goldwater, I believe what he believes in.”

KATHLEEN HALL JAMIESON: Now, Barry Goldwater had repudiated that endorsement. The campaign in ’64 decided not to air that very expensively produced ad because they were afraid if they aired it, it would create a backlash. And I went through all the records in the LBJ Library. And I didn’t find anybody standing up and saying, “It would be morally wrong to do it.” But I did find people who thought that it would create a backlash.

Now, why were they concerned? If Goldwater had repudiated the endorsement, they assumed that the press would point it out and the public would be smart enough to say, “Well, then it means nothing.” It means that these horrible despicable people have endorsed, but it doesn’t mean anything. Barry Goldwater has repudiated. Now let’s jump forward. William Ayers, Barack Obama. Barack Obama has repudiated what William Ayers did in the Weather Underground — ’64 it didn’t become part of the campaign.


KATHLEEN HALL JAMIESON: Now it is. That’s a change. And it says our tolerance for those kinds of inappropriate inferences is different. The confidence that that inference somehow is legitimate now where there wasn’t confidence that it was in ’64 is now present. And that’s problematic. I worry about that.

And I worry about on the other side, by the way, about Senator McCain. What does it mean that he was involved in the Keating Five scandal? Well, first, we need to get the facts right. But more importantly, he has said it was the worst mistake of his life.

BILL MOYERS:He’s repented that.

KATHLEEN HALL JAMIESON: He has essentially said he’s learned from it. Do we now draw the inference that because of it he’s going to act as he did back then in whatever way was inappropriate back then, if he becomes president? Or do we believe that he learned from it and, as a result, he’s far less likely to act in any way that would suggest that kind of a problem?

If you looked at his career since then, you’d say reasonably the inference is he learned a lesson and he will not go anywhere near that kind of problem in the future. That’s what motivated McCain-Feingold. That’s what motivated his attacks on earmarks, et cetera, et cetera, et cetera. So the notion that something can be accurate but not relevant is one that we’re missing as we assess these claims.

BILL MOYERS: But historically, hasn’t politics always been contact sport? And I mean, gladiators. The campaigns go very deep into the human appetite and the human desire for combat and to see your opponent devastated and beaten and left on the field, right?

KATHLEEN HALL JAMIESON: Well, to the extent that we use war metaphors about campaigns, sometimes they’re more accurate and sometimes they’re less accurate.

BILL MOYERS: Well, “campaign” itself is a military term.


BILL MOYERS:Have you been on the mili-


BILL MOYERS:-you know, Alexander the Great, a military campaign. Napoleon, a military campaign.

KATHLEEN HALL JAMIESON: And campaigns may be the way in which we displace more violent means of settling our disagreements. But we should be able to take all of our impulses to want to see contact and combat into an arena in which the combat is of ideas. And the contact is the clash of competing ideas.

There’s a question that’s asked in the debate this week, about Social Security and Medicare and the fact that what we essentially have are unfunded obligations. It’s an important moment for the candidates to explain their differences and their similarities. Now, what doesn’t Barack Obama tell us? Barack Obama doesn’t tell us that he is proposing to raise the payroll tax on those making over $250,000. He won’t do it for about ten more years.

It will be a two to four percent increase. But, nonetheless, he has a plan that will help. It won’t solve but it will help to solve the shortfall in Social Security. Now, why doesn’t he say it? He doesn’t say it because before he came to this position, he considered the possibility of raising the payroll tax on everyone from $102,000, the current payroll tax limit, to $250,000 and all the way up.


KATHLEEN HALL JAMIESON: He just put it as an option. He didn’t say he supported it. But it sits in the record. He’s afraid that if he says, “That’s what I’m going to do,” Senator McCain will come back and say, “Yes, but weren’t you really considering the option — the other option? Is that really what you plan to do?” So the American people didn’t learn that he actually took a position that would help us address a problem.

Now, what didn’t Senator McCain say? Senator McCain didn’t say, in answer to this unfunded problem, this problem of unfunded obligations in Social Security and Medicare, “I, Senator McCain, voted against the prescription drug benefits. As a result, when the country took on an obligation without any ability to pay for it, without any sound funding mechanism to pay for it, I stood against it.”

Why doesn’t he tell us that? Because senior citizens who got the perspective drug benefit would say, “Well, I’m not gonna vote for you then. You opposed my benefits.” What’s the problem? We had a moment in which we could have learned what one candidate proposes to do, what one candidate has already done.

We also have, in that same debate, a statement by Senator McCain that invited an immediate follow-up by Tom Brokaw, and it didn’t occur. Senator McCain in that debate told us that future beneficiaries of Social Security would not get the same benefits as the current beneficiaries.

BILL MOYERS: I thought that was the moment that illuminated the possibility of a real debate.

KATHLEEN HALL JAMIESON: And at that moment we should have stopped the debate, and we should have said, “All right, let’s look at–” because there’s a question on the table about Social Security and Medicare. There’s also a question on the table about your priorities.

We could have stopped to say let’s look at how you’re going to address this large entitlement and the fact that it’s going to run out of money in the foreseeable future. It’s going to start running a deficit in the even shorter term future.


KATHLEEN HALL JAMIESON: What Senator McCain has said is everything’s on the table. But in the debate, he puts something on the table that I’d always thought they’d both taken off, which is the possibility that we might have lower benefits offered. If he actually meant that, he’s proposed essentially a spending cut. But it has real consequences for senior citizens.

What has Senator Obama said? Senator Obama has said that he doesn’t want to cut benefits and he doesn’t want to raise the retirement age. Now, he didn’t say that in the debate, but he said it elsewhere. We could have actually had a debate right there about how to deal with Social Security, make it work long term. And we-

BILL MOYERS: Both men would have been holding a live wire, though.

KATHLEEN HALL JAMIESON: They would have been-

BILL MOYERS: The live wire of American policy.

KATHLEEN HALL JAMIESON: They would have been holding a live wire. But we had a journalist who could have followed up in that moment and could have asked the question. And remember the first debate the question that is asked is, “What would you do to change your plans in light of financial circumstances?” And Senator McCain says he’ll freeze everything except the entitlement programs and veterans’ affairs and defense. Now, the problem in that answer is, and it’s the beginnings of an answer to the question, is there’s not much left in the budget after entitlement programs, defense, and veterans’ affairs.

In this second debate, we had the possibility of asking, what about entitlement reform? What about that piece of this very large budget in this new financial situation? And when Senator McCain said we might not have the same benefits in the future that we have now, he was opening the beginnings of a dialogue. If he meant to say that, it was the most significant statement that was made in the entire debate about entitlements and about the budget.

BILL MOYERS: In this news cycle, this week’s debate is already old news. The last debate between these two men comes next week. What do you hope this debate might clarify that voters need to know before the election?

KATHLEEN HALL JAMIESON: I think that voters are very confused by the discussion in this debate about who will cut taxes for whom under their current plans. I think the debate needs to clarify the fact that Senator Obama has no plans to increase taxes on those couples making less than $250,000. I think the debate has confused people about Senator McCain’s healthcare plan.

I think the debate needs to clarify that when he provides $5,000 to those in the fundable tax credit to those who currently have insurance, that will offset the fact that he is going to be taxing those benefits that you’re getting from your employers. I think the debate has the possibility to clarify what these candidates actually have on the table about Social Security, very important issue for a lot of people. And I think the debate has the possibility to clarify the basic impulses of these two candidates to engage in diplomacy or talk and stronger action under what kinds of circumstances.

BILL MOYERS: What’s the one question, the most important question you think Senator Obama should ask Senator McCain this week? And then vice versa.

KATHLEEN HALL JAMIESON:I think they should each ask each other the same question. And the question should be: In light of the unprecedented circumstances in which the country finds itself right now, read the headlines for the last week, what of your taxing and spending plans are you willing to change? And what are your priorities as you ask what will be preserved? But-

BILL MOYERS: They’ve done that, Kathleen. But-


BILL MOYERS:-twice they’ve been asked that, and they won’t answer.


BILL MOYERS:They run like a rabbit.

KATHLEEN HALL JAMIESON: The reason I think that they should ask the question again is because I believe that both of these candidates, either one if elected, is not going to be able to deliver the spending promise and is not going to be able to deliver the tax cutting that’s promised. And I think it’s important that they repeatedly be given the opportunity to answer that question.

Because, at some point, the American people need to hear that answer if we’re going to forecast governance effectively. And I think if the candidates were courageous, they would say, “And before you answer that question, I’m going to tell you my answer, because by telling you my answer, I’m going to assure you that this isn’t a trap so that when you answer, I come back and tell you about all the things I’m going to spend on because we don’t really have to do that under my administration.”

BILL MOYERS: The book is DIRTY POLITICS: DECEPTION, DISTRACTION, AND DEMOCRACY.  And Kathleen Hall Jamieson, thank you for coming back again.


BILL MOYERS: That’s it for the JOURNAL. I’m Bill Moyers. See you next time.

This transcript was entered on June 10, 2015.

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