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1998 Civility Promises Seem Like Long Ago

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.”

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