Midterm mudslinging

MARCI MCDONALD November 3 1986

Midterm mudslinging

MARCI MCDONALD November 3 1986

Midterm mudslinging


In Colorado, Republican Representative Kenneth Kramer—locked in a dead heat for his state’s vacant Senate seat—ran ads attacking the honesty of his Democratic rival, Representative Timothy Wirth. “If Tim will try to fool you today,” intoned a voice-over on the 30-second pitch, “what about tomorrow?”

In the beleaguered industrial areas of Wisconsin, commercials for Republican Senator Robert Kasten claimed that his opponent, Ed Garvey, “paid money to a reporter to spread lies” about him. On Missouri television screens, Lt.-Gov. Harriet Woods, a Democrat, lashed back at the front-runner in the Senate race, former Republican governor Christopher Bond, with a campaign that accused him of calling her “sleazy and shallow.”

And in Maryland, former White House aide Linda Chavez launched her Senate bid with a slur on her Democratic rival’s unmarried state that was charged with sexual innuendo: she branded five-term Congresswoman Barbara Mikulski a “San Francisco-style liberal” and “anti-male.”

Across the United States, as Americans prepared to vote next week for 435 House of Representatives and 34 Senate seats—as well as 36 governorships and other local offices—the midterm Congressional election campaign took on one overriding characteristic: ugly. Lacking any major national themes—and in some cases even local issues—candidates have gone for the jugular in a binge of paid political character assassination. Said political scientist Stephen Hess of the Washington-based Brookings Institution: “This is the year of the negative commercial.”

Indeed, the negative ad campaigns reached such extremes of smear and countersmear that they became an issue themselves. And some candidates called for a moratorium on them, asserting that they were only serving to further alienate an electorate that had already registered a record lack of in-

terest in this year’s vote. Said Senator Arlen Specter, a Republican running in a bitter re-election race in Pennsylvania: “The public has not really thought much of politicians. They will think a lot less of us now.”

To political analysts, that public boredom is all the more lamentable considering what is at stake on Nov. 4. According to most recent polls, Democrats stand a slightly better than even chance of winning the four seats they need to regain control of the 100-seat Senate (a third of whose members are up for re-election) for the first time in six years. That could severely curtail Reagan’s so-called conservative revolution in the final two years of his term, rendering him a lame duck. Said Norman Ornstein of the conservative

American Enterprise Institute: “The interpretation of the election will be that it is a referendum on Reagan’s policies.”

In short, a Democratic win in the Senate would suggest to many that Reagan had failed to inspire a major realignment in the American political landscape. Coupled with the alreadyassured Democratic majority in the 435-seat House of Representatives, it would also transfer the legislative initiative to his opponents. That, in turn, could breathe new life into policies to aid blacks, women, the poor and the jobless in the declining farm, oil and industrial belts.

A Democratic victory in the Senate—where Republicans now hold a 53to-47 majority—would snare for the

party the chairmanships of the upper house’s influential committees. By winning control of the key judiciary committee—whose hearings determine federal judicial nominations by the White House—the party could make it difficult for Reagan to stack the Supreme Court with lifetime appointments of conservatives. And by taking over the armed forces and foreign rela-

tions committees, Democrats could put the brakes on Reagan’s military buildup and turn such humiliations as last month’s rare Senate override of the President’s veto on South African sanctions into a routine occurrence.

But the most far-reaching impact of a Democratic win in the Senate would likely be felt on trade—a matter which the party has attempted, largely in vain, to turn into a campaign issue. For Canada—and specifically Canadian-U.S. free trade negotiations—that could spell disaster. Protectionist pressures have been sharply mounting within Democratic ranks from the party’s union supporters. And both Canadian and U.S. officials say that the growing demand for a curb on all foreign imports would almost certainly be

translated into aggressive new trade legislation within the next two years. Indeed, some predict that this could happen no matter which, party actually holds power in the Senate. Warned one U.S. official involved in the free trade talks: “It is going to be an uphill battle to convince Congress that an agreement with Canada is in our interests. No matter who controls the Senate,

you are going to have to do one heck of a selling job, but with a Democratic Senate, there is more danger of it becoming a partisan issue.”

Alarmed by the increasing prospect of a Democratic victory, the Republicans are throwing their ultimate weapon into the final days of the fray: Ronald Reagan’s personal popularity. After a stagesetting speech on the White House lawn, the President hopped aboard Air Force One last week to begin a 13-state swing meant to evoke the triumphs of his days on the silver screen. Just as the coach exhorted his cinematic team to “win one more for the Gipper”—football star George Gipp, whom Reagan portrayed in the 1940 movie Knute Rockne, AllAmerican—the President appealed to his electorate to “cast a last vote for me”

by keeping the Senate in Republican hands. But even that “last hurrah” on the campaign trail, as one White House aide dubbed it, was uncharacteristically negative. Invoking the spectre of the past, he warned that a Democratic Senate victory could mean larger federal deficits, tax increases and double-digit inflation.

Reagan’s advisers continued to try to capitalize on the surprising public approval for his handling of the abortive Icelandic summit—trying to turn “what looked like a lemon,” as syndicated columnists Rowland Evans and Robert Npvak put it, “into Election Day lemonade.” And Reagan himself seemed determined to rally voters around his controversial Strategic Defence Initiative (SDl), which is popularly known as Star Wars, but which in postsummit speeches he called America’s “insurance policy.”

But political scientists agreed that despite Reagan’s soaring personal ratings in the polls, the summit and Star Wars—over which a Soviet-U.S. arms deal broke down in Iceland—have failed to catch fire as a campaign issue. They find that across the nation the election has remained resolutely focused on local issues and personalities. Said political scientist Hess: “The summit does not seem to be rubbing off one way or another as an issue.”

Indeed, Reagan’s insistence on shifting the campaign focus to Star Wars may represent his first major misreading of the national mood. And observers say that his attempts now to turn the election into a referendum on his policies could backfire on him. His warning of economic disasters to come could shift the spotlight on to the one area where Democrats have tried to focus it, so far with limited success: the uneven economy. Although the indicators of an economic slowdown have not yet been dramatic enough to anger voters, pollsters say that citizens in the most depressed areas, from Texas to Louisiana and the Midwest, are increasingly blaming Washington’s policies for their woes.

But some analysts suggest that the economic depression has produced apathy, not anger, in the areas suffering most from the collapse of the oil market and the death of traditional industries. That sentiment also holds true in the farm belt, which has suffered a string of blows from bank foreclosures to this summer’s drought. It was described by Peter Brent, an Iowa corngrower who lost his own 500-acre farm three years ago to the bank and now counsels other victims of foreclosures in a farmers’ advocacy group called Prairiefire. Said Brent: “I really think folks have been beat so long, they

have given up on the whole political process.”

Brent’s conclusion is echoed by organizers of black voter registration drives who lament the apathy and disillusion that have settled over black America. Despite the fact that the unemployment rate among blacks is twice the national average, the Reagan administration has attacked affirmative action programs. “Many of the chronically poor and unemployed have just kind of given up hope,” said Gracia Hillman of the Washington-based Black Voter Participation Project. “They just do not see this system as working and delivering for them.”

Pundits across the political spectrum predict that Reagan’s political magic will not translate into more than half a percentage point of Republican votes next week. Said Norman Ornstein: “There are no coattails in this case.” But Republican party chairman Frank Fahrenkopf pointed out that in the past three elections a total of 15 Senate races had turned on a two-percentage-point margin. And this year—when Republicans must win two-thirds of the contests in which, according to the polls, their candidates are losing or caught in a dead heat— every point will count. Democrats are now leading in five races currently held by Republican senators—while a

Republican leads in only one held by a Democratic incumbent. In the stumping the President has done so far, his personal charisma has failed to nudge the polls in favor of his candidates in at least two states:

Maryland and Louisiana. In fact, some Republicans—above all in the farm belt—attribute their own high ratings directly to the fact that they have distanced themselves from him. In Iowa,

maverick Senator Charles Grassley has left his Democratic challenger in the dust by consistently attacking administration farm policies. And he says that one reason his fellow Republican in South Dakota, Senator James

Abdnor, is in trouble is that he was not as quick to distance himself from the White House. Last month, when Reagan made his first visit to South Dakota, Abdnor left for Washington that morning before the President arrived. And when party officials suggested that the President would be willing to stump for Grassley, the Senator declined. He retorted that he hoped Air Force One would arrange to overfly the state entirely—a suggestion which the White House tactfully heeded. What Reagan has been invaluable for, however, is his drawing

power as a fund-raiser. The election has become an unprecedented multimillion-dollar war of 30-second TV commercials. In California, where the campaign is the second-most expensive

Senate race in history, the candidates are spending almost $10 million each in what has become exclusively a media contest. California Republican challenger Edwin Zschau has spent $2.5-million on TV ads over the past month, and he credits that expenditure for narrowing the gap between him and veteran Senator Alan Cranston by 10 points to a promising 45 to 38. Zschau plans another $2-million blitz in the final days of the campaign. But analysts complain that this kind of spending ultimately shortchanges the public; to pay for costly TV ads, politicians such as Cranston have had to devote the majority of their time and efforts not to talking with voters but to soliciting campaign donations from big corporate spenders. Said Brookings’ James Reichley: “It is putting much more emphasis on fund-raising, and it is giving more power to the people who have the money.”

In the fund-raising sweepstakes, the Republican party has outclassed the Democrats by an estimated 5 to 1. In Alabama, Louisiana, North Carolina, Idaho and Washington state, the Republican Senate candidate has a $l-million advantage over his Democratic rival. But money does not seem to have always made a decisive difference in the advance polls.

In four of the five races, the Democrat, though less wellfunded, is either tied or slightly ahead in the polls.

The focus on television advertising has brought complaints from the media. Reporters covering the California race have grumbled that they have no events to write about except their shuttles between both candidates’ Beverly Hills headquarters to preview video cassettes of the latest commercial. Pressing the flesh and baby-kissing have almost disappeared from large states with scattered population centres and disparate media markets. Said Senator Cranston’s media consultant, Robert Shrum: “A political rally in California consists of three people around a television set.”

Some observers blame television for trivializing issues with facile 30-second spots. Said political scientist Steven Smith of Brookings: “Candidates never get a chance to explain themselves. And in a campaign like this, they do not dare, because anything they say may be taken out of context.” Others blame the medium for turning the campaign into a mudslinging contest.

But Austin Ranney of the University of California at Berkeley argued that such a development was the logical result of what he called an increasing “de-alignment” in the United States: a steady decline in loyalty to the traditional political parties, which has turned the spotlight on to personalities. Said Ranney: “More people now call themselves independents than they ever have in history.”

The mudslinging has crept into the 36 governors’ races as well, where two incidents illustrate just how difficult it is to stop once a feud has begun. In the Pennsylvania race, personal attacks reached such a pitch that Republican Lt.-Gov. William Scranton III last week announced an end to his own negative ads, charging that the campaign had deteriorated into a “back-alley brawl.” The manager of his opponent branded him a “whiner.” And in the middle of a TV debate for the Colorado statehouse, front-runner Roy Romer, a Democrat, offered to end all the negativism by extending his hand to his opponent, Ted Strickland. Strickland spurned the handshake and promptly accused Romer of “dishonesty and hypocrisy.”

In a handful of the gubernatorial campaigns, more is riding on the outcome than who will occupy the governor’s mansion. In California, Los Angeles Mayor Tom Bradley has been fighting an underdog campaign against incumbent Gov. George Deukmejian in his second try at becoming the nation’s first black governor. And in at least three states where the outcome is not in doubt, the degree of the victory will help determine the governors’ chances of making the leap from their statehouses to the White House in 1988. Most prominent among them is New York’s Mario Cuomo, but New Jersey’s Thomas Kean and Massachusetts’ Michael Dukakis are also eyeing their prospects in Washington.

Indeed, the results of the Nov. 4 vote could significantly alter the political geography for the 1988 presidential race— and determine who will star in the post-Reagan era. A Democratic win in the Senate would give a higher-profile platform to such little-known Democratic hopefuls as Delaware Senator Joseph Biden, while a Republican loss would deprive current Senate Majority Leader Robert Dole of the spotlight. In the unlikely event of a 50to-50 state tie, leading Republican presidential candidate Vice-President George Bush would be grounded in Washington, where as president of the Senate he would be called on to break all tie votes. But ^ the biggest windfall to Demo9 cratic presidential candidates s would be the psychological boost.

A Democratic Senate major£ ity does not necessarily mean opposition to all of Reagan’s programs. In a country where—unlike Canada’s parliamentary system—party loyalty is routinely ignored, many Southern Democrats have shown themselves to be more conservative than northern Republicans. But no matter what the outcome of next week’s vote, all sides agree that the most explosive issue that all parties may seize on in the next Congress is trade—an issue virtually guaranteed to cause concern to Canadians. Canadian officials have indicated that they are aware of the dangers. “I do not expect it to get better for Canada with the next Congress,” said one. “If anything, it will get marginally worse.”