The political price Mitt Romney has paid for his slow trudge to the Republican nomination includes having acquired a somewhat nasty reputation. Today’s New York Times takes note of his tendency to run overwhelmingly negative ads. The story attributes his need to disqualify a series of rivals with this pithy and highly accurate observation:
“It’s clear the negative ads are what’s keeping this guy alive,” said Nelson Warfield, a Republican strategist who worked for Mr. Perry. “It seems like Republican primary voters will not vote for Mitt Romney unless they are forced into it. And the way they’re forced into it is when he beats the other guy senseless.”
Descriptively, this is perfectly true, and somewhat damning of Romney. But it’s not clear that Warfield means to merely make a descriptive point about Romney’s vulnerability forcing him to disqualify his opponents. And the article itself very clearly adopts the point of view that Romney’s style of relentless attacking is shady.
This reflects a broad convention that the important moral metric of a campaign is negativity, as opposed to accuracy. To see why that’s so silly, consider another ad, this one put out earlier in the campaign by Warfield’s candidate, Rick Perry:
This is a highly positive ad. With soft music in the background, Perry warmly speaks to the camera and explains his ideas without even a glancing reference to any other candidate. It’s also an expression of paranoid and somewhat hateful majoritarian cultural paranoia. But positive! So why should we care about negativity, exactly, as opposed to truth?
As it happens, Romney’s campaign has displayed a pretty consistent indifference to truth. But the negativity per se is not really the issue. The Times story focuses on Romney’s attack on his intra-party rivals, but those attacks have, on the whole, been fairly truthful. (Rick Perry really did adopt a non-cruel policy toward illegal immigrants; Newt Gingrich really was deposed as Speaker.)
All politicians shade the truth at least a bit, and there is a moral component to their willingness to do so. Some politicians will say whatever they think will get them elected, while others care more about truth, or at least their reputation. Negativity, on the other hand, is just something you engage in when circumstances warrant. It’s not a character issue.