In Defense of Negative Campaigning

Obama and his supporters have decried McCain's "negativity" and "hateful rhetoric". We are told that we should stick to the issues and not attack a candidate's personality or competence.

These complaints are wrong. Questions about a candidate's character and competence are absolutely relevant. And "negativity", which I suppose means pointing out a candidate's disqualifications, is a valid and honorable way of demonstrating unsuitability for office. Let me try to explain, in words so simple that even a MSM journalist can understand them.

Character and competence matter

A political platform is like a three-legged stool. It is based on issues, character, and competence. If any one of those legs is rotten, the whole structure collapses, no matter how sturdy the other two legs are.

If a candidate is honest and competent but has views on major issues that we think are dangerous, then however much we like him, we won't vote for him. (I felt that way about Hubert Humphrey.) But that's not the only reason for rejecting someone.

A candidate may be open and honest and have sound views on foreign and domestic policy, but if he is incompetent, his administration will be a disaster. One thinks of Warren Harding and (if charitably inclined) of Jimmy Carter.

A candidate may be clever and competent, but if he is a liar and a scoundrel, the soundness of his statements about issues is irrelevant -- he is probably lying about them. In particular, if he says different things to different voting groups solely to get more votes, then we are compelled to suspect that his professed positions on issues are mere poses. If he is what I call a level 5 flip-flopper, using lies and concealment to hide his changes of position, then he can't be trusted at all.

So any one of the three legs of the stool is a valid area for examination and criticism.

Disqualifications matter

Negativity is often a wise and just strategy: When  awarding grants or picking the right applicant for a job, one invariably starts by weeding out all the applicants with major disqualifications. When federal agencies review proposals, they first throw out all applications that fail to conform to the submission guidelines. In selecting job applicants, the usual strategy is to first weed out all the candidates that are woefully inexperienced, or who have lied in their resumes, thereby leaving the remaining un-disqualified candidates for further study. As Lucky Jim's  future employer tells him:

"It's not that you've got the qualifications....but there are plenty who have. You haven't got the disqualifications, though, and that's much rarer."

The same principle applies to voting. More often than not, we decide to vote against the candidate we don't like rather than for one that we do like.

Drawing the line

The question is how big a flaw in viewpoint, character, or competence must be to be considered a disqualification. Lets use the issue of abortion as an example.

With regard to issues, the degree of conflict will depend on the comparison between the stated positions of the candidate and the priorities of the voter. Thus, any sincere Catholic voter will regard abortion as a grave matter and will reject any pro-choice candidate, regardless of his stands on other issues. On the0 other hand, a skin-deep Catholic, who is more concerned about prosperity than religious matters, will shut his eyes to the abortion issue and vote for or against a candidate on the basis of his economic proposals. Therefore, an issue-based disqualification is fundamentally subjective and its importance will vary drastically from one voter to another. In a sense, shared views on what is or isn't a disqualification are the basis of formation of political groups and parties.

In contrast, disqualification on the basis of competence is usually objective. The questions are simply "has he had experience and responsibilities commensurate with the post he's seeking?" and "if so, how well did he do?" However, there is usually plenty of room for disagreement about the degree of relevance of past successes or failures.

Character-based disqualifications are at least partly objective.  A candidate who is a casual or fallen-away Catholic cannot be character-disqualified for being pro-choice; there is no moral conflict. But a pro-choice candidate who professes to be a devout Catholic must be either a fool, a hypocrite, or (as the babblings of Nancy Pelosi seem to suggest) a bizarre combination of both. Regardless of a voter's views on abortion, he would be well advised to reject such a person as unfit for public office. Similarly, most voters would agree that, while a single past dishonesty or unsavory association is in most cases not a serious disqualification, a persistent pattern of such deeds, lies, or associations indicates a dishonest character and is a major disqualification.

Therefore, although accusations about Obama's association with Ayers may not of themselves indicate a serious disqualification, the cumulative effect of all of the accusations against Obama---such as of dishonest flip-flopping, of deceitful campaign tactics, of mendacious concealment of past deeds, and of long term associations with crooked individuals and groups -- are in aggregate an ample body of evidence of a deceitful and dishonest personality. They therefore constitute proof of a serious character disqualification that should convince any rational voter that Obama is unfit for public office.

UPDATE:  The three-legged stool concept has already been used by Brian Carpenter to construct an ingeneous Venn diagram of presidential types at occamsrazr.com
Obama and his supporters have decried McCain's "negativity" and "hateful rhetoric". We are told that we should stick to the issues and not attack a candidate's personality or competence.

These complaints are wrong. Questions about a candidate's character and competence are absolutely relevant. And "negativity", which I suppose means pointing out a candidate's disqualifications, is a valid and honorable way of demonstrating unsuitability for office. Let me try to explain, in words so simple that even a MSM journalist can understand them.

Character and competence matter

A political platform is like a three-legged stool. It is based on issues, character, and competence. If any one of those legs is rotten, the whole structure collapses, no matter how sturdy the other two legs are.

If a candidate is honest and competent but has views on major issues that we think are dangerous, then however much we like him, we won't vote for him. (I felt that way about Hubert Humphrey.) But that's not the only reason for rejecting someone.

A candidate may be open and honest and have sound views on foreign and domestic policy, but if he is incompetent, his administration will be a disaster. One thinks of Warren Harding and (if charitably inclined) of Jimmy Carter.

A candidate may be clever and competent, but if he is a liar and a scoundrel, the soundness of his statements about issues is irrelevant -- he is probably lying about them. In particular, if he says different things to different voting groups solely to get more votes, then we are compelled to suspect that his professed positions on issues are mere poses. If he is what I call a level 5 flip-flopper, using lies and concealment to hide his changes of position, then he can't be trusted at all.

So any one of the three legs of the stool is a valid area for examination and criticism.

Disqualifications matter

Negativity is often a wise and just strategy: When  awarding grants or picking the right applicant for a job, one invariably starts by weeding out all the applicants with major disqualifications. When federal agencies review proposals, they first throw out all applications that fail to conform to the submission guidelines. In selecting job applicants, the usual strategy is to first weed out all the candidates that are woefully inexperienced, or who have lied in their resumes, thereby leaving the remaining un-disqualified candidates for further study. As Lucky Jim's  future employer tells him:

"It's not that you've got the qualifications....but there are plenty who have. You haven't got the disqualifications, though, and that's much rarer."

The same principle applies to voting. More often than not, we decide to vote against the candidate we don't like rather than for one that we do like.

Drawing the line

The question is how big a flaw in viewpoint, character, or competence must be to be considered a disqualification. Lets use the issue of abortion as an example.

With regard to issues, the degree of conflict will depend on the comparison between the stated positions of the candidate and the priorities of the voter. Thus, any sincere Catholic voter will regard abortion as a grave matter and will reject any pro-choice candidate, regardless of his stands on other issues. On the0 other hand, a skin-deep Catholic, who is more concerned about prosperity than religious matters, will shut his eyes to the abortion issue and vote for or against a candidate on the basis of his economic proposals. Therefore, an issue-based disqualification is fundamentally subjective and its importance will vary drastically from one voter to another. In a sense, shared views on what is or isn't a disqualification are the basis of formation of political groups and parties.

In contrast, disqualification on the basis of competence is usually objective. The questions are simply "has he had experience and responsibilities commensurate with the post he's seeking?" and "if so, how well did he do?" However, there is usually plenty of room for disagreement about the degree of relevance of past successes or failures.

Character-based disqualifications are at least partly objective.  A candidate who is a casual or fallen-away Catholic cannot be character-disqualified for being pro-choice; there is no moral conflict. But a pro-choice candidate who professes to be a devout Catholic must be either a fool, a hypocrite, or (as the babblings of Nancy Pelosi seem to suggest) a bizarre combination of both. Regardless of a voter's views on abortion, he would be well advised to reject such a person as unfit for public office. Similarly, most voters would agree that, while a single past dishonesty or unsavory association is in most cases not a serious disqualification, a persistent pattern of such deeds, lies, or associations indicates a dishonest character and is a major disqualification.

Therefore, although accusations about Obama's association with Ayers may not of themselves indicate a serious disqualification, the cumulative effect of all of the accusations against Obama---such as of dishonest flip-flopping, of deceitful campaign tactics, of mendacious concealment of past deeds, and of long term associations with crooked individuals and groups -- are in aggregate an ample body of evidence of a deceitful and dishonest personality. They therefore constitute proof of a serious character disqualification that should convince any rational voter that Obama is unfit for public office.

UPDATE:  The three-legged stool concept has already been used by Brian Carpenter to construct an ingeneous Venn diagram of presidential types at occamsrazr.com