It has been a dozen years since then-Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee Chairman Martin Frost (Texas) and then-National Republican Congressional Committee Chairman John Linder (Ga.) agreed to a cease-fire on “personal attacks” by the campaign committees.
Yes, you read that correctly — a cease-fire on personal attacks.
“The DCCC will not invest its money in campaigns that initiate attacks of an ‘intimate’ personal nature against their opponents. Elections should be about the differences in policy that impact people’s lives,” Frost, now an attorney in the D.C. office of Polsinelli Shughart, said in a mid-September 1998 news release, which I happened to file away for no particular reason.
“The agreement you and I reached yesterday has the potential to truly change the tone and tenor of modern-day American politics for the better,” Linder responded in a photocopied letter on NRCC stationery, which I also saved.
“We each agree that there is no room in either of our parties for those who would make personal attacks on another candidate’s private life when those attacks have no bearing on a candidate’s fitness or ability to serve in office,” Linder continued.
Maybe Frost and Linder were more interested in the public relations value of their positions than in changing the tone of campaigns, but only a little more than a decade later, the idea that personal attacks — or any attacks — would be off-limits sounds quaint.
The Frost and Linder agreement came just after Salon, a left-leaning online “magazine” that often prefers the outrageous and inflammatory to the serious, published a report that then-House Judiciary Chairman Henry Hyde (R-Ill.) had an affair 30 years earlier. The Hyde story followed reports about the personal lives of two other Republican House Members, Reps. Dan Burton (Ind.), who is still in Congress, and Helen Chenoweth (Idaho).
At the time of the Salon report, Hyde’s committee was considering possible impeachment charges against President Bill Clinton.
It is difficult, if not impossible, to imagine the NRCC and DCCC chairmen getting together now to try to set informal “rules” about what kinds of attacks are and are not acceptable. Instead, the parties have been swept along into the sewer, looking for more and new ways to demonize candidates of the opposing party.
In one sense, it isn’t the parties’ fault, of course. The whole system has changed since the relatively mild 1980s, when all the parties did was accuse the opposition of political extremism.
“You can’t control what third parties are going to do during campaigns, and that has taken the shackles off the two parties,” said Matt Angle, who was executive director at the DCCC when Frost and Linder sought to put some restraint back into campaigns.
“If an ‘outside’ Republican group attacks a Democratic candidate, the DCCC has to respond,” argued Angle, who is the director of LoneStarProject.com, a Texas-based communications and strategy website that critically dissects the statements and actions of Texas Republicans.
“Dictating tactics is beyond the reach of the parties, and certainly beyond the reach of individual campaigns,” he added. “The parties can’t affect the tenor of campaigns or even set the rules of engagement.”
“Now, there are so many more media outlets that the attacks have more impact,” said Ted Maness, who served as executive director of the NRCC under Linder and is chief of staff to retiring Rep. George Radanovich (R-Calif.).
The increasing clout of outside groups, Web-based bomb-throwers, cable TV character assassins and pseudo-journalist partisans has made politics meaner than it ever was — and more difficult to find reasoned and reasonable solutions that split the difference between the dominant views of the two parties.
Not that the parties try to fight the trend. If you’ve read some of the party’s direct mail recently, you’ve seen them ratchet up their rhetoric, accusing the other party of lying, cheating and stealing.
Interestingly, these attacks — most notably and vociferously by national Republicans in 2006 and by national Democrats in 2010 — didn’t work. Voters discounted the party attacks as nothing more than partisan propaganda. But that doesn’t mean that strategists have concluded they need to try a different approach. No, not at all.
The parties, and their press folks, are in a rut.
On Friday, I received an e-mail from Rep. Chris Van Hollen (Md.), the ranking member on the Budget Committee in the next Congress and the DCCC chairman this past cycle. The e-mail was seemingly recycling rhetoric from the last year in bashing Republicans for “obstructionism” and attacking the opposition for holding a position on tax cuts that didn’t stop them from racking up a net gain of 63 House seats about a month ago.
You’d think that politicians might take a pause from the usual political rhetoric for a few months. But they can’t. Our political system demands that they never let down their partisan guard. The forces on the confrontational left and the combative right will see to that. One Democratic group on the left is already running a TV spot in Iowa warning President Barack Obama not to compromise with Republicans.
The increased number of avenues for launching attacks on political institutions or individuals — and the willingness of the mainstream media to pick up the charges — have allowed the loudest, most obnoxious, most ideological forces to control the political discussion during campaign season.
Better get used to it. There is no end in sight.
Stuart Rothenberg is editor of the Rothenberg Political Report.