Campaign 2004

Mudslinging is not new, but technology carries the message far and wide

Swift Boat Veterans for Truth, Dan Rather, Kitty Kelley. Do the names and organizations issuing accusations and counter-accusations going back more than 30 years make this election unusual?

Does the Michael Moore film “Fahrenheit 9/11” mark a new way of campaigning, in which outsiders present information that weighs heavily against a candidate?

“Negative campaigning is nothing new,” says Jeffrey Berry, the John Richard Skuse, Class of 1941, Professor of Political Science. “The manner by which messages are conveyed has changed, but dirty politics and casting aspersions on the other party’s candidate are long a staple of American politics.”

In the 1928 presidential campaign when Al Smith, a Catholic, ran on the Democratic ticket, brochures appeared with the title “Traffic in Nuns,” Berry said, “conveying the sense that if we elected a Catholic president all kinds of horrible things would happen. The slogan, ‘Ma, Ma, Where’s My Pa? Gone to the White House Ha, Ha, Ha,’ was not about an alleged love child of Bill Clinton, but about Grover Cleveland, who purportedly paid money to a woman who was supposed to have given birth to his child.”

In a wide-ranging discussion of the presidential campaign and the Bush presidency, Berry commented on issues and made a few predictions. Often interviewed by newspaper reporters, Berry has been quoted widely in the New York Times, Boston Globe and USA Today, among other newspapers.

Repeat, repeat, repeat
While negative campaigning may have been around for a long time, the technology to reach audiences has made it easier and quicker to convey a message, Berry said. The Internet and movies and TV allow campaigns to “inundate us with whatever message they want to send out, and that’s important because the Republicans, in particular, are guided by an advertising strategy that you have to repeat the message so many times before it really sinks in. They have stayed on message and hammered Kerry for months with the same basic criticism, initially that he was a flip-flopper, and more lately that he’s disingenuous.

“Kerry, in contrast, has not run a thematic campaign, either about himself and what he wants to do as president or in his criticism of President Bush.”

Berry said Kerry “trapped himself” in his earlier support for the war [in Iraq] and has been, in effect, trying to find a way out of that.

“Part of the problem for Kerry is that it’s a party problem. The Democratic Party itself is split over the war, and a high number of legislators voted for the war resolution, and the initial war effort seemed to be bipartisan. If the Democrats had been consistently against the war and pounded away at the message that this is the wrong way to go about this, I think the country could be in a different place today,” Berry said.

Bush, meanwhile, may well have goals for Iraq and the Middle East that were too ambitious “One theory in the study of the presidency is that some presidents overreach,” Berry said. “They go a step too far, and they grab for a goal that is just beyond their grasp. Think of Lyndon Johnson and Vietnam, and one has to think that may be the case with Iraq. Bush said, ‘Let’s bring democracy to the Middle East and change our role in the world.’ When you think about those goals, their ambition is breathtaking,” he said.

A place in history
“What characterizes the Bush administration is that he is a president who is long on the ‘vision thing,’ unlike his father. He had a very ambitious plan for the United States on both the domestic and foreign side. On the domestic side, he has been extremely successful in accomplishing his goal, which was to significantly lower taxes. He has had two major tax-cut bills pass, and that stands as a striking achievement of his administration.

“On foreign policy, he had ambitious goals, too. The Bush doctrine is the hallmark of a philosophy that makes America a stronger, more aggressive force in the world; we can strike preemptively at countries we think are threatening, and the Iraq war is the manifestation of that.”

Berry said that like all presidents, Bush sees his place in history as of great importance. “The war in Iraq was a grasp at greatness, to do something dramatic and revolutionary. When you look at his speeches on Iraq, they’re full of references to a broader democratization of the Middle East. He truly believes that Iraq can be a springboard to modernization and democracy.”

Berry predicted that the war will get worse, and insurgents will be emboldened by their success so that money, weapons and volunteers will flow across the Iraqi borders from other countries.

“The support for the war will continue to decline. One thing we know as political scientists is that the longer a war goes on, the less popular it gets.”

The “ultimate nightmare” regarding Iraq, he said, is that “the victor in Iraq will be Iran, not the United States, because a Shia theocracy would be highly sympathetic to Iran and vice versa. There is a Shia majority in Iraq, so they could ultimately take control of the country.”

Berry is wary of making any sort of prediction about the outcome of the November election: “The polls,” he noted, “change almost daily.”