Without clearly defining these terms, it's difficult to judge what behaviors are being condemned, let alone whether or not those behaviors are actually bad. As a result, sometimes perfectly legitimate debate practices are denounced as being unfair.
Some Behavior Is Genuinely Bad
This web site, the Civil Debate Page, has outlined several practices that are harmful to civil debate. Some of them -- name-calling, ad hominem argument, caricature and exaggeration -- may be what people have in mind when they use terms such as "mud-slinging", "negative politics", "character assassination" and "personal attacks". If so, then they should be clear that that is what they mean so that we can judge whether it's true that someone has engaged in those practices.
Criticism Isn't Necessarily Unfair
However, there are all sorts of things that are entirely fair game in civil debate. Certainly, candidates for public office should be allowed to argue that their opponents' ideas and policies are inferior to their own. That is, after all, the whole point of a political campaign. This sort of comparison can be made without being disrespectful or dishonest (though most politicians choose to be dishonest and disrespectful, anyway).
Does Character Count?
Matters of character are more difficult to evaluate as "negative". It is legitimate, for instance, to bring up a candidate's past record in office - say, their voting record - as an indication of what they would do in the future. But what about their life outside of public office, such as their personal life, or business dealings, or criminal record? Are these things relevant? There are good points to be made both in favor and against delving into a candidate's private life -- in the same way any employer might want or not want to know details about the private life of someone they wish to hire. The person who chooses to bring up information about a candidate that is not part of their public record bears the burden of explaining how the information is relevant.
(I know it sounds strange to say a candidate's criminal record might not be relevant to their running for public office. But, suppose somebody broke the law, owned up to it and served whatever sentence was handed down, might the matter be considered forgiven and closed?)
At any rate, whenever someone makes an accusation of "mud-slinging", "negative politics", "character assassination" or "personal attacks", they should be expected to spell out clearly what behavior they are condemning and why they are condemning it.
EXAMPLES AND ANALYSIS
"Now, I know the Republicans have been mean to her, and they say terrible things. You gotta respect them. They’re good at this. They delegitimize the people they don’t like."-- Former President Bill Clinton, May 20, 2016, referring to his wife, Democratic presidential contender former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton.
Comment: Bill Clinton is resorting to the "only my opponent" caricature, accusing Republicans of resorting to some form of negative politics (i.e., "delegitimizing") that he and his own side don't (in his view) resort to. Is it really true that Clinton and other Democrats don't say terrible things about Republicans in order to win elections? Aren't they "good at this", too?
If Hillary Clinton manages to beat Bernie Sanders, the early primaries have already revealed that there’s only one strategy for the general election against a Republican, be it Donald Trump, Marco Rubio, or Ted Cruz: Scorch the earth.-- From a February 24, 2016, BuzzFeed story by Ben Smith about Democratic presidential contender former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton.
There was a scenario, which looks more like a fantasy, in which Clinton was a movement. Women in their twenties, thirties, and forties would rally to her the way black Americans rallied to Obama; she would run on her own mantle of change.
In reality, nobody is that excited about Hillary Clinton, and young voters, women and men — the foot soldiers of any Democratic Party movement — aren’t coming around. She lost a resounding 82% of voters under 30 in Nevada. Her campaign now rests on the hope that voters of color like her well enough, if nowhere near as much as they like Obama. And that means that when she faces a Republican, she will have to destroy him — something the people who will be doing the destroying acknowledged when I asked them earlier this month.
“The slogan is ‘Be Afraid. Be Very Afraid,’” said Paul Begala, who is an adviser to the pro-Clinton super PAC Priorities USA.
Begala’s group works on the negative side of the political ledger, and he argued that Clinton will have supporters — Sanders among them — helping to rally Democrats. But he and other top Democratic operatives agreed that 2016 will be, as the technical term for negative politics goes, “a contrast election.” “This is headed to a more contrastive kind of election,” said David Axelrod, the architect of Obama’s 2008 campaign. “People want to know you’re going to lead with a positive vision, but within the context of that, you can set up a contrast. Every campaign has to do that, she may have to do it more intensely.”
Comment: This is "negative politics" rhetoric. How much of what the article describes is inappropriate behavior?
Hillary Clinton campaign strategist Joel Benenson made an eyebrow-raising claim Friday on CNN, accusing Sen. Bernie Sanders (I., Vt.) of running the most negative Democratic primary campaign in history.-- Political strategist Joel Benenson, January 29, 2016, as related in a story by David Rutz of The Washington Free Beacon.
Sanders has aired ads attacking Wall Street and big banks without naming Clinton, who has received huge speaking fees from Goldman Sachs, but he has also made it clear he would not engage in personal mud-slinging during the campaign.
“I think he’s going negative,” Benenson said. “I think he’s probably running the most negative campaign of any Democratic presidential candidate.”
“You think so?” anchor Kate Bolduan asked.
“I think so, in a presidential primary season, yes,” Benenson said. “I think he’s been more personal in his attacks. I think he’s been increasing it on the stump recently, and I do, I can’t think of one. Even in a very hard-fought campaign in 2008, I don’t think we had the range of negativity on either side, and I was on Obama’s side then, that we’ve had now.”
Comment: Benenson is accusing Sanders of "negative politics", without defining the term. He is also indulging in the "only my opponent" caricature.
"I like Hillary Clinton and I respect Hillary Clinton. And Hillary Clinton has devoted her life to public service and I have tried, as I hope you all know, not to run a negative campaign, not to be attacking every other day, to keep this discussion on a high level, where we debate the issues facing this country. And by the way, with a few exceptions, we're doing a lot better than the Republicans in that regard. But on the other hand, that's not a very high bar to reach … Look, Hillary Clinton is a very good person. Martin O'Malley is a very decent guy. So I'm not -- you know, this is not a -- personal stuff. It just seems to me that the crises that we face as a country today, and we didn't even get into climate change to a significant degree: inequality, poverty in America, an obscene and unfair campaign finance system. These problems are so serious that we have got to go beyond establishment politics and establishment economics."-- Democratic presidential contender Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-VT), January 25, 2016, during the Democratic Presidential Candidates Town Hall Meeting, hosted by Chris Cuomo of CNN. His remarks referred to Democratic presidential contenders former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and former Gov. Martin O'Malley (D-MD).
Comment: First, Sanders seems to be using "hate the policies, not the person" rhetoric with respect to Clinton and O'Malley. Second, Sanders denounces (and claims he hasn't resorted to) "negative politics", without clarifying exactly what counts as negative (other than saying it's "not personal"). Lastly, Sanders claims that Republicans are worse than Democrats when it comes to negative politics, which is the "only my opponent" caricature.
SCARBOROUGH: Shouldn't you be more assertive when Donald Trump comes out and says he wants to keep all Muslims out of the country?-- Republican presidential contender Sen. Ted Cruz (R-TX), December 10, 2015, during interview with Joe Scarborough of MSNBC. His remarks were in reference to Republican presidential contender Donald Trump's proposal to temporarily halt Muslims from entering the U.S.
CRUZ: Look, I've said I disagree with that proposal. But is amazing how eager the media is – I mean, the number one question I get day in, day out is, “Please attack Donald Trump, please attack Donald Trump.” And, you know, I’ll point out, my approach to Trump has been the same as my approach to every other Republican candidate, which is that I’m not interested in personal insults and mudslinging. … Because I don’t think the American people really want to hear a bunch of politicians bickering like kids. They want to hear real and positive solutions to the problems we’ve got … Listen, I get that the media wants us to play theater critics and critique every other proposal. What I’m focusing on are my own policy proposals.
Comment: Cruz says he disagrees with Trump, yet he mischaracterizes the questions posed by the media. It is legitimate to ask a candidate to defend their own policies as being superior to those of other candidates. That kind of comparison and contrast doesn't amount to "personal insults", "mudslinging", "attacking", "bickering", or asking candidates to be "theater critics". Cruz is wrongly trying to dismiss these questions (which are appropriate questions) as "negative politics".
"My friends, we beat fear with hope. We beat cynicism with hard work. We beat negative, divisive politics with a positive vision that brings Canadians together," Trudeau, 43, told a crowd of cheering supporters in Montreal.-- Liberal Party leader and Prime Minister-elect Justin Trudeau, October 19, 2015, as related by a Reuters story by Randall Palmer and Rod Nickel.
"This is what positive politics can do."
Comment: Trudeau is accusing his political opponents of resorting to fear, cynicism, and negative politics, while crediting himself with unifying the country.
SHARPTON: Let me raise another issue. House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy, he said this week, quote -- I'm quoting him -- "Everybody thought Hillary Clinton was unbeatable, right? But we put together a Benghazi special committee, a select committee. What are her numbers Friday? What are her numbers today? Her numbers are dropping." That's the quote.-- Democratic presidential candidate former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, September 30, 2015, during an interview with Al Sharpton of MSNBC, concerning remarks made earlier by Rep. Kevin McCarthy (R-CA).
SHARPTON: You're expected to testify before the Benghazi Committee on October 22. What's your response to McCarthy's comments?
CLINTON: I have to tell you, I find them deeply distressing. I knew the ambassador that we lost in Benghazi. Along with him, we lost three other brave Americans who were representing us in a very dangerous part of the world. There have already been eight investigations in the Congress. One independent investigation. We have learned all we can learn about what we need to do to protect our diplomats and our other civilians and we need to be enforcing and implementing those changes, which is what I started and what Secretary Kerry has continued. So when I hear a statement like that, which demonstrates unequivocally that this was always meant to be a partisan political exercise, I feel like it does a grave disservice and dishonors not just the memory of the four that we lost, but of everybody who has served our country. We've had lots of different situations, as you know so well. We've had embassies run over. We've had them blown up under Ronald Reagan, under Bill Clinton. We've had lots of attacks where we lost Americans or foreigners working for America, under George W. Bush. We can go back and there's a wall in the State Department, there's a wall in the CIA where we lost those civilians we lost. It's never been turned into a partisan political battle by the majority in Congress the way the Republicans in this Congress have done. And I just wish that they would really start tending to the people's business, deal with the many problems that we face and figure out how we're going to move our country forward. You know, I -- I really regret the way that they have treated this serious matter.
Comment: Just because McCarthy says the investigation into Benghazi hurt Clinton's poll numbers doesn't mean that was the reason he supported the investigation. Even if it was the reason he supported the investigation, that doesn't mean other Republicans supported it for that reason. Finally, even if every Republican supported it for "political" reasons, that doesn't mean there are no good reasons for the investigation. Just because someone has bad reasons for performing a certain action doesn't prove there are no good reasons to perform that same action; it's ad hominem reasoning to conclude otherwise. McCarthy's remarks in no way dismiss the investigation as "partisanship" or "politicizing" or "negative politics".
Conservative radio host Hugh Hewitt found something Donald Trump doesn’t win at on Thursday — knowing his terrorists.-- Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump and pundit Hugh Hewitt, as related by a September 3, 2015, Politico story by Eliza Collins.
“I’m looking for the next commander-in-chief, to know who Hassan Nasrallah is, and Zawahiri, and al-Julani, and al-Baghdadi. Do you know the players without a scorecard, yet, Donald Trump?” Hewitt asked the 2016 Republican candidate, referring to the respective leaders of Hezbollah, Al Qaeda, Jabhat al-Nusra and the Islamic State.
“No," Trump said.
"You know, I’ll tell you honestly, I think by the time we get to office, they’ll all be changed. They’ll be all gone,” he said. “I knew you were going to ask me things like this, and there’s no reason, because, No. 1, I’ll find, I will hopefully find Gen. Douglas MacArthur in the pack.”
Trump said asking him who the key players are was a type of “gotcha question.”
Comment: Trump is accusing Hewitt of some form of unfair or "negative" politics. But there's nothing unfair about what Hewitt asked. Nor is it the undoing of a presidential candidate if they don't know the names of all the players in foreign policy. Hewitt might prefer that they do, but is it absolutely essential?
Though AIPAC can generally count on bipartisan support on any issue it cares about, it never had a prayer of beating an administration that was prepared to do and say anything to get its way. Once the president made clear that he considered the nuclear deal to be the centerpiece of his foreign policy legacy, the chances that even the pull of the pro-Israel community could persuade enough Democrats to sustain a veto override were slim and none. In order to achieve that victory, Obama had to sink to the level of gutter politics by smearing his critics as warmongers and slam AIPAC with the same sort of language that earned President George H.W. Bush opprobrium.-- Pundit Jonathan S. Tobin, September 2, 2015. His remarks concerned the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) and the Iranian nuclear deal.
Comment: Where did President Barack Obama say that opponents of the deal were warmongers? Is that a distortion of Obama's position? Also, Tobin is accusing of "negative politics" and being willing to "say anything" in order to win. Lastly, it's the "only my opponent" caricature to suggest that Obama, but not his opponents, resorted to unfair tactics on the debate about the Iranian nuclear deal.
Ted Cruz on Monday defended his statement that Mitch McConnell told a “flat-out lie” about reauthorization of the Export-Import Bank, doubling down on his assertion that the Senate majority leader conspired with Democrats to undermine the most conservative wing of the party.-- Republican presidential candidate Sen. Ted Cruz (R-TX), July 27, 2015, according to stories by Adam B. Lerner of Politico and Oliver Darcy of The Blaze.
“I gave a highly unusual floor speech,” Cruz said on “The Howie Carr Show” on WRKO in Boston, referring to his diatribe last Friday condemning the way the Senate ultimately passed funding for the Export-Import Bank.
“The 11th commandment doesn’t mean that you never disagree with another Republican on policy, on substance, on record,” Cruz said. “Remember, Ronald Reagan primaried Gerald Ford in ’76. But he didn’t attack him and say he’s a no-good, unethical person.”
“He said, ‘We need to stand for principle.’ So what I said about McConnell wasn’t attacking him personally, it was simply talking about his record,” the senator added. “He said this, he made this commitment to me, and then he broke it. And it was laying out the facts and it was very calm and orderly just walking through, telling the truth. You know there’s an old quote often wrongly attributed to George Orwell but it’s a powerful quote, which is: ‘In a time of universal deception, telling the truth can be a revolutionary act.’”
Comment: Cruz is using "hate the policies, not the person" rhetoric. Cruz said that McConnell lied: how is that not a remark about McConnell personally? It's criticizing McConnell for something McConnell did. Plus, a personal remark is not necessarily false or unfair; it's only when we misrepresent and deride someone else that we've resorted to "negative politics".
The campaign ads from 2012 were more negative than the ads in 2008, 2008’s were more negative than 2004’s and, you guessed it, 2004’s more negative than 2000’s. But far from disparaging the form—or my thickening waistline—I celebrate it. Negative campaigning is a genuine positive for democracy. I come to my understanding both intuitively and from paging through a new book, The Positive Case for Negative Campaigning, by political scientists Kyle Mattes and David P. Redlawsk. The popular abhorrence for negative campaigning seems to stem from the word “negative,” for how could anything good come from something whose essence seems so retrograde? The press encourage this sort of thinking by declaiming each election the most negative or nasty or mudslinging without pausing to explain what constitutes a negative ad. A negative ad is not necessarily a false ad. As Mattes and Redlawsk explain, the standard political science definition for negativity in campaigns is “talking about the opponent.” … But in general, Mattes and Redlawsk applaud this switch, as do I, as long as the ads don’t engage in “scurrilous, nonrelevant attacks” or lie. … Imagine making a decision about what car to buy, what job to take, where to vacation or what restaurant meal to consume if the only information you were exposed to was the positive information provided by carmakers, employers, vacation spots or restaurants. Useful decisions are rarely made by comparing the positives of what’s on offer. One must also judge the negatives, which reveal failings and weaknesses. But sellers of cars or candidates never volunteer their own negatives or flaws.-- Pundit Jack Shafer, July 15, 2015.
Comment: Shafer (with the help of Mattes and Redlawsk) is explaining that there is nothing bad about drawing a contrast between you and your opponent. In other words, doing so is not "negative politics" in the bad sense.
CHUCK TODD, MEET THE PRESS: Let's bring up Donald Trump. You've defended him. Your former governor, Rick Perry, has criticized him. You've had an experience with plenty of Mexican immigrants in Texas. Are they -- are these immigrants that are coming into Texas what Donald Trump describes? Are they drug dealers, rapists, and such?-- Republican presidential candidate Sen. Ted Cruz (R-TX), July 5, 2015, during an interview with NBC News' Chuck Todd on "Meet the Press". Cruz was referring to remarks made by Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump on June 16, 2015.
SEN. TED CRUZ: Listen, I am a passionate advocate for legal immigrants. I am the son of an immigrant who came legally from Cuba. And I'll tell you, from the day I started campaigning, I traveled the state of Texas, talking about how all of us, we are the children of those who risked everything for freedom, that that immigrant experience of all of us is what makes us Americans, because we value in our DNA liberty and opportunity above all else. Now, when it comes to Donald Trump, I like Donald Trump. He's bold, he's brash. And I get that it seems the favorite sport of the Washington media is to encourage some Republicans to attack other Republicans. I ain't gonna do it. I'm not interested in Republican on Republican violence.
TODD: Rhetoric matters.
CRUZ: You know --
TODD: Doesn't rhetoric matter?
CRUZ: I salute Donald Trump for focusing on the need to address illegal immigration. The Washington cartel doesn't want to address that. The Washington cartel doesn't believe we need to secure the borders. The Washington cartel supports amnesty and I think amnesty's wrong. And I salute Donald Trump for focusing on it. He has a colorful way of speaking. It's not the way I speak. But I'm not gonna engage in the media's game of throwing rocks and attacking other Republicans. I'm just not gonna do it.
Comment: This is an evasion, as Cruz never addresses whether Trump's remarks were appropriate. Is Cruz never going to criticize remarks made by other Republicans, no matter what they are, because that would be "Republican on Republican violence"? (Note that Cruz also uses violent rhetoric, though as a (comically exaggerated?) metaphor.) Is he never going to oppose another GOP candidate on anything? What if someone doesn't like the idea of Americans being "encouraged to attack" one another: does that mean Republicans shouldn't criticize the remarks of Democrats, either, and vice versa? Of course not. Cruz isn't being asked to engage in name-calling, demonizing, or negative politics. He's being asked to take a stand on whether someone else's rhetoric is acceptable, and he's refused to. He's evaded the question by praising Trump for criticizing illegal immigration – which was never the issue; the issue was Trump's description of illegal Mexican immigrants as being mostly rapists and drug-runners – and by accusing the media of trying to draw him into some contrived conflict. But it's entirely appropriate to ask a politician to take a stand on the rhetoric of another politician. Note, the word "colorful" is essentially a way of designating Trump's rhetoric as being attention-getting, but not wrong (for the record, what Trump said was wrong).
"It's surprising to me that the President, essentially, who could get the revenues he wants from the deductions and exclusions, but insists on rates not for economic reasons but political. He wants to break the back of Republicans. This is a continuation of his campaign. He thinks he is won it and now he wants to drive a stake through the Republicans. It's all about the politics; it's nothing about economics."-- Commentator Charles Krauthammer, December 3, 2012.
Comment: Krauthammer is accusing President Barack Obama of "politicizing" or engaging in "negative politics". Is some crass form of politics really the only reason Obama could have for preferring a raise in tax rates? Perhaps Obama believes that getting increased revenue by increasing tax rates rather than eliminating deductions and exclusions is better for economic reasons, or that it's more likely to achieve the revenue goal he has in mind.
"[F]olks, here's the thing that is a hard, cold reality to me. I've been doing this 25 years. I think back to previous years, in fact, eras of this program. And we did our feminist updates, and what were the feminist updates? We chronicled and laughed at what was being done in universities. We laughed at some of the radical, cockeyed ideas that radical feminists and feminazis were doing. … While all this is being built, and while it's happening, we're pointing out the intellectual holes in the data. We're pointing out the faults in the so-called logic of the argument. In the meantime it was taking hold with a whole bunch of young people starting with Ted Turner's Captain Planet cartoon series on Saturday morning, to who knows what else was happening. … It's really been fascinating in one regard. It's disappointing in another, scary in another. But they bought and believe as fervently as anything you believe the stuff that we were laughing at, deservedly so. … But now these people all come out, these young tech bloggers, even some in the sports media, doesn't matter where you go, this young, hip, pop culture demographic, not only do they believe all the stuff we were laughing at, they have a moral superiority about their countenance. What they believe is morally superior to say what I believe, what they believe and what they live and how they live is morally superior. So they kind of look down their noses at people. They do not and will not consider opposing arguments because the people who make them have been discredited with character assassination and so forth. … Let's put it this way. When you've got a majority of people this country who can be made to believe that Mitt Romney hates dogs with a commercial of a dog in a cage on the roof of a station wagon with ostensibly the Romney family inside on the family vacation, then I would suggest we've got a problem. Take whatever other insult or mischaracterization or character assault on conservatives that you can believe and there is a moral superiority to the people who believe this stuff. It's not that they believe it, it is that there is an arrogant condescension about them. They're close-minded. There's no other possible way to explain things that are happening other than what they believe."-- Radio pundit Rush Limbaugh, November 30, 2012.
Comment: This is a caricature of some sort. Perhaps it's the "only my opponent" caricature. Is it really the case that liberals and progressives -- but not conservatives -- believe that their ideas are morally superior? And only liberals and progressives are condescending, arrogant, insulting and close-minded about it? And conservatives don't resort to character assassination?
"Romney was successfully defined via negative advertising by the Obamaites in the campaign. When Romney was busy raising money, Obama couldn't run ads or even a campaign on his record. There's not one positive thing Obama could say about his record, so the Democrats did what they always do. They set out to demonize their opponents, which is standard operating procedure for them. They demonize all their critics, try to discredit them and so forth, clear the playing field of them. … we had ads and a campaign strategerist, the lovely and beautiful Stephanie Cutter, claiming that Romney was a felon and that he was a corporate criminal and he had all these secret bank accounts and that he didn't care about you. None of it was true. … who are these people that believe these ads? … Look, folks, we gotta be honest. Hard work is not what an Obama voter is interested in. So the message doesn't resonate. But still, who are these people that believe this drivel, these lies, who are these people that believe all of this rotten stuff about George W. Bush that was put out? We don't run ads like that about people, do we? We never attacked Obama's character, his humanity or any of that stuff, and we could have … We didn't go anywhere near that. We are always aboveboard."-- Radio pundit Rush Limbaugh, November 8, 2012.
Comment: First, Limbaugh is indulging in the "only my opponent" caricature by claiming that only Democrats -- and not Republicans -- resort to demonizing and "negative" politics, and that Republicans never attacked Obama's character. Of course they do, and of course they did. They're not "always aboveboard". Second, Limbaugh is using "negative politics" rhetoric, but to his credit he's defining the term to mean "demonizing" (he's just wrong that Republicans and conservatives don't engage in demonizing). Third, Limbaugh is demonizing people who voted for Obama by saying they are opposed to hard work. Lastly, Limbaugh is saying that Romney and the Republicans lost the 2012 election because they wouldn't stoop to the misbehavior that (allegedly only) Obama and Democrats do, which is "virtuous loser" rhetoric.
ROMNEY: [A]ttacking me is not an agenda. Attacking me is not talking about how we're going to deal with the challenges that exist in the Middle East and take advantage of the opportunity there and stem the tide of this violence. … Again, attacking me is not talking about an agenda for getting more trade and opening up more jobs in this country.-- Former Gov. Mitt Romney (R-MA), October 22, 2012, during the third presidential debate in Boca Raton, FL, between Romney and President Barack Obama.
Comment: This is a "negative politics" accusation. There's nothing wrong or unproductive -- in principle, at least -- about Obama criticizing Romney's positions (and vice versa). In fact, that's the point of debate, to show that your positions have fewer flaws than your opponent's positions. If Obama is making unfair criticisms -- employing faulty reasoning or distortions -- then that's another matter, and Romney should protest. But he can't simply complain that it's unfair for Obama to "attack" his positions.
(The list above is not intended to be a comprehensive record of all relevant examples.)