An increasingly negative 1988 presidential campaign appeared to be in the making Wednesday as campaign officials for Democratic nominee Michael S. Dukakis warned that they are good at negative campaign advertising and are prepared to hit back hard at Vice President George Bush’s attacks on Dukakis.
Earlier, Republicans made it clear that Dukakis will come under heavy attack at the GOP convention next week.
And Bush declared that, although he will strike a “positive” tone in his speech accepting the Republican presidential nomination, he cannot “prevent a swipe at Michael Dukakis” by friends who “don’t like the vicious, personal attacks” made against the vice president at the Democratic convention three weeks ago.
The campaign has grown more negative ever since Bush was repeatedly attacked and ridiculed at the Democratic convention. Dukakis campaign officials said Wednesday that the biggest problem facing the Massachusetts governor is “taking on an entire Administration, with the President going negative and the vice president going negative.”
In predicting “an unprecedentedly negative” presidential race, Kathleen Jamieson, an authority on campaign advertising, pointed out that, even before the GOP convention, both sides have begun airing negative ads on television. Never before during the television era have negative ads been aired so early in a presidential campaign, said Jamieson, professor of communications at the University of Texas.
Susan Estrich, Dukakis’ campaign manager, stressed that the Dukakis campaign learned during the rough-and-tumble Democratic race this year that “if you’re hit with negative ads, you can’t sit on your hands, and we won’t.”
Estrich said the Dukakis campaign produced some of the most effective negative ads of the Democratic race in response to candidate Richard A. Gephardt’s attacks on Dukakis. Some of those ads, accusing Gephardt of flip-flopping on issues, were credited with helping send the Missouri congressman’s campaign into a tailspin.
“Make no mistake about it,” she declared, ". . . if George Bush goes negative, we’ll do it again.”
Warning From Jackson
But the Rev. Jesse Jackson, who has been campaigning for Dukakis since losing the nomination to him, cautioned Wednesday that the campaign “ought to focus on direction and not dirt.”
While Estrich and Kirk O’Donnell, senior campaign adviser, were outlining their plans for a counterattack to a group of reporters at an interview session at a hotel near the White House, Jackson was calling for a positive campaign during a breakfast session with the House Democratic leadership on Capitol Hill.
“If this campaign boils down to Bush attacking Dukakis with one-liners every day and Dukakis becoming preoccupied with the Bush-(Panamanian strongman Manuel A.) Noriega connection, or the Bush-Iran-Contras connection or exchanging drugs for arms, it gets warped into sleaze,” Jackson said. “Then there will be no hope left for the people.”
Bush has repeatedly attacked Dukakis as “a card-carrying member of the ACLU,” the American Civil Liberties Union, and labeled him soft on defense. He has also cited Dukakis’ lack of foreign policy experience and warned that a Dukakis presidency would make the world “a more dangerous place.”
Reagan Hits at Dukakis
President Reagan also has taken several swipes at Dukakis, declaring that he would endanger the economic gains of the 1980s.
For his part, Dukakis, during his convention speech, accused Bush of acquiescing in the “cockamamie idea that we should trade arms to the Ayatollah (Ruhollah Khomeini of Iran) for hostages.” Since then, he has made scathing references to Bush and the Reagan Administration’s connection with the Iran-Contra scandal and its dealings with Panama’s Noriega.
Estrich said she was not sure what impact “negative campaigning and rumor-mongering” have had on the presidential campaign so far. But she pointed out that the most recent poll by the Gallup Organization, which showed Dukakis’ lead over Bush had dropped from 17 points to 7 points since the Democratic convention, was conducted immediately after news reports about rumors that Dukakis had undergone psychiatric treatment.
Rumors Become Big Story
Most of those rumors had been circulated by followers of political extremist Lyndon H. LaRouche Jr. But some current and former White House officials, as well as people associated with Bush’s campaign, had urged reporters to check into the rumors. The subject became a national news story after Reagan, asked about it at a press conference, replied: “I’m not going to pick on an invalid.”
The President later said he had only been “trying to be funny, and it didn’t work.”
But the attention given to the rumors, which have not been substantiated, prompted Dukakis and his physician to flatly deny that he had ever been treated by a psychiatrist.
Since the story of the rumors broke, Bush has said that he would “thoroughly disapprove” of spreading such rumors and assumed no one in his campaign “is doing anything of that kind.”
And a spokesman said that campaign manager Lee Atwater had warned his staff “not to be involved at any level” in such activity.
Syndicated columnists Roland Evans and Robert Novak, who have close contacts in the conservative political community, reported this week that Atwater himself had been “trying to spread” the unsubstantiated rumors “without leaving any vice presidential fingerprints.”
Hope to ‘Trash Dukakis’
The Bush people, Evans and Novak wrote in a column that appeared in the Washington Post, want “to trash Dukakis without hurting Bush” and are not prepared to let the matter drop. “The vice president’s men privately insist that the case is not closed nor the last word heard,” they wrote.
Bush’s repeated attacks on Dukakis since the Democratic convention, coupled with news coverage of the rumors, probably were a major factor in Bush’s narrowing the gap with the Democratic nominee in the latest Gallup polls, political strategists here said.
“Negative campaigning does work,” said Greg Schneiders, a Democratic consultant whose firm does polling for a number of political figures, including Sen. Lloyd Bentsen of Texas, the Democratic vice presidential nominee. “Dukakis’ lead was soft and he would have lost some of it anyway, but I’d say about half of the loss was due to the negative campaigning.”
Estrich, declaring that negative campaigning ultimately is “not a successful strategy,” deplored the “back-and-forth attacks” of the campaign and acknowledged that a daily Dukakis campaign response to Bush’s attacks “doesn’t serve us well.”
Negatives Can Be Effective
But Texas University’s Jamieson said she expects an unusually negative race for several reasons:
--Experience in recent presidential elections has shown that negative campaigning is effective when executed properly.
--There are not many cutting issues distinguishing Republicans from Democrats, and the closer both sides are on issues, the more difficult it is to run a positive campaign.
--Both the Republican and Democratic primaries were bitterly fought, providing each side with negative material.
For example, Dukakis can cite former GOP contender Bob Dole’s charge that Bush has left no “footprints” in public policy despite 20 years of government service, and Bush can rekindle Gephardt’s charges that Dukakis is naive in his approach to the Midwest farm crisis.
By waging an unduly harsh campaign, Bush could risk solidifying the extraordinarily high negative or unfavorable ratings (40% to 45%) that he has registered in recent polls. But Jamieson said that, as a rule, “the underdog in the polls has much more latitude in attacking his opponent.”
Attack Ads Expected
Jamieson, author of “The Packaging of the Presidency,” said she expects a spate of attack ads in the fall. She said they are most effective when they are factual and perceived to be fair comment and when production techniques are used to “disassociate the attack from the candidate benefiting from it.”
In President Gerald R. Ford’s reelection campaign in 1976, directed by James A. Baker III, the new Bush campaign chairman, his strategists effectively used interviews with people in the street to cast doubt on the background and capabilities of his opponent, then Georgia Gov. Jimmy Carter.
“They pioneered the people-in-the-street interviews in 1976,” Jamieson said. “They were known as the wishy-washy ads. They showed people around the country saying, ‘I don’t know much about Carter’ or ‘I don’t know anything about Carter’ or ‘I like Carter but he wouldn’t be a good President.’ ”
Paired Ads Aid Bush
So far, Bush has benefited from one negative ad paired with a positive ad, both sponsored by the Republican Party. One ad shows a happy 7-year-old girl who has known “only peace and prosperity” during the last seven years. The ad with a negative connotation shows the same girl and flashes a picture of former President Carter, suggesting she should not be condemned to returning to the Carter era.
The Democratic Party has counterattacked with an ad picturing a 7-year-old girl playing ball and suggesting she should not be condemned to a future clouded by the federal budget deficits run up by the Reagan-Bush Administration.
One thing politicians have learned, Jamieson said, is that “you should respond immediately once an attack ad goes on the air.”