MAYBE THE DUMBEST THING said about the 1986 election was that the spate of negative ads on television turned off the voters and drove down turnout to the lowest point in four decades, a measly 37.3 percent of eligible voters. On the contrary, attack ads were practically all there was in the campaign to keep up voters’ interest. Imagine how low the turnout in Wisconsin might have dipped if Republican Senator Bob Kasten hadn’t gone on the air with a commercial accusing Democrat Ed Garvey of creative bookkeeping as director of the National Football League Players Association, and if Garvey hadn’t fired back with an ad consisting of testimonials on his behalf by NFL veterans. The NFL dispute was certainly weightier than much of the campaign dialogue in Wisconsin, which included such bones of contention as Kasten’s refusal to hold a joint press conference after a debate with Garvey, the hiring by Garveyites of a gumshoe to investigate Kasten, and Ralph Nader’s heroic and high-toned entry into the campaign with the charge that Kasten, once arrested for drunk driving, needed to be “rehabilitated,” not re-elected. Compared to this stuff, the thirty-second spots were downright Socratic.
The next dumbest thing said about the campaign was that it was a victory for conservatives and Republicans. True, it wasn’t a big setback for the right. The new ideological baseline in American politics established by Ronald Reagan was confirmed once again in the election. America is conservative, but we knew that already. Since voters aren’t veering to the left, liberals and Democrats didn’t offer up a fresh vision of new spending programs (except for more costly farm subsidies) and an expanded federal government. These people are not suicidal, after all. They craved control of the Senate and did what it took to achieve that. For Republicans, the pain of losing the Senate was eased a bit by gains in governorships. Only a bit, though. In a moment of unwarranted optimism, Donald Regan, the White House chief of staff, noted that the twenty-four states with GOP governors have 270 electoral votes. Big deal. This does not assure a Republican presidential win in 1988. Democrats held the governorships in states with many more than 270 electoral votes in 1980 and 1984, and what good did it do them? Frankly, I was most impressed with the GOP’s success in holding down House losses to five. Still, it’s hard for Republicans to claim that the eighty-one-vote margin now held by Democrats in the House (258-177) represents a big victory for the GOP. It could have been worse, I admit, but a victory it ain’t.
THE SAD FACT OF LIFE for Republicans is that Democrats are far better at politics than they are—smarter, quicker on their feet, more flexible, more personally appealing, and I could go on. The conservative trend in America has endured for nearly two decades, and yet the party of welfarism and isolationism hasn’t been driven into minority status. Why not? Democrats simply adjust well to whatever political situation faces them. They learn the correct political lessons, sometimes the hard way. Walter Mondale ran on a platform of more taxes and a bigger government in 1984, and lost ignominiously. Democrats weren’t about to copy him in 1986.
They made two important decisions in 1985 that aided them immeasurably in the election. One was to give up the idea of trying to impose a tax increase on Reagan. The other was to go along with Reagan’s plan for tax reform, though many Democrats had a visceral dislike for dropping the top rate on individual income to 28 percent. In passing tax reform over the objection of the corporate class, Republicans thought they were inoculating themselves against the charge that they represent big business instead of the people. But it turned out that Democrats did the inoculating, freeing themselves from the charge that they are high taxers. And tax reform, rather than being a realigning issue for Republicans, was “the dog that didn’t bark” in the 1986 campaign, as Jeffrey Bell of Citizens for America has aptly put it. Look at the House race in Wilkes-Barre, Pennsylvania, where Republican Marc Holtzman spent $1 million against incumbent Democrat Paul Kanjorski. Holtzman rattled Kanjorski with a TV spot saying the congressman had backed “the Democratic tax increase of 1986.” This was based on Kanjorski’s vote for a budget resolution that called for unspecified new revenues. Since he’d voted for tax by reform, Kanjorski had a terrific response. He aired an ad that showed both himself and Reagan, and said: Come on, Marc, the President and I were lowering tax rates in 1986, not raising them. Kanjorski won 71-29 percent.
The most resourceful Democrat of all was Terry Sanford of North Carolina. He saw what happened to James Hunt in the 1984 Senate race, namely that Senator Jesse Helms linked Hunt to the liberal leadership of the national Democratic party. Sanford campaigned against the national party. And when Republican James Broyhill revived the old charge that Sanford, as governor in 1961, had imposed, a “food tax,” Sanford had a strong comeback. He called it a “school tax,” saying the money went to improve schools. He thus aligned himself with the everpopular education reform movement. Better still, Sanford outflanked Broyhill on the supply side. He blamed Broyhill in a TV ad for having voted for “the biggest tax increase in American history” in 1982. The ad worked wonders, mainly because the charge was true. Sanford, a liberal by North Carolina standards, won, and he did it without trying to make those hardy perennials of Democratic campaigns, compassion and giveaway programs, the focal point of the election.
REPUBLICANS ARE STUPID. They are always looking for some gimmick to help them win elections. This year, the gimmicks were coattails, technology, and two frivolous issues (drugs and terrorism). For years now, Republicans have failed to understand that it doesn’t work to use motherhood issues against Democrats. Economic and national security issues often work, but it’s not credible to suggest that Democrats are soft on drug traffickers and terrorists. Democrats only had to list the number of antidrug and antiterrorist bills they’d sponsored. Senator Alan Cranston of California ran an ad consisting entirely of the names of antidrug bills he’d backed. In 1970, Republicans tried the same tack with the motherhood issue of that era, crime. They said Democrats were soft on criminals. This flopped once Democratic candidates began presenting TV spots of themselves riding in police cars. There was a lesson for Republicans in the 1970 experience, but they didn’t learn it.
Nor have their minds cleared on the subject of presidential coattails. Eisenhower didn’t have them, Nixon didn’t, but Republicans insisted Reagan would in 1986. For heaven’s sake, why? Why would he pull Republicans through this year, when he wasn’t on the ballot, after having failed to do that in 1984, when he was on the ballot? Anyone who can tie a shoe ought to be able to figure out that Reagan wouldn’t be much help at midterm time. Besides, it’s slightly insulting to voters to be told, as Reagan and other Republicans did, that they’d really be voting for the President one final time by backing Senator Mark Andrews of North Dakota or Ed Zschau in California, or some other Republican. Voters, who like to think they can make up their own minds, not only saw through this tackiness but prided themselves on seeing through it.
Republicans made a critical mistake in not turning the Senate races into a national referendum on Reagan’s conservative policies. By failing to do so, they left many of their candidates exposed. A half-dozen or more of them had won in 1980 solely because the conservative mood, exacerbated by the Carter presidency, was at high tide. Left to their own devices, they would have lost in 1980. Left to their own devices in 1986, they did lose.
NOW, I CONCEDE that it would have been difficult to nationalize the campaign even if Reagan & Co. had tried early on. Democrats weren’t about to get in a fight with Reagan. After the Iceland summit, the President did seek to inject the Strategic Defense Initiative, suddenly more popular than ever, as a cutting-edge issue. It didn’t cut. The reason was that Democrats simply said they were for Star Wars, too. And there wasn’t enough time left before election day to force the Democrats to flesh out their position. Were they only for laboratory research, which is the Gorbachev position, or did they favor testing and deployment, the Reagan position? I suspect many of these Democrats would be willing to settle for research alone, but they weren’t compelled to make this crucial distinction. Had Republicans begun earlier—last summer, say—to concentrate the campaign on Star Wars, they might have made Democrats come clean. Instead, they did too little, too late. They stressed expensive technology —taped phone messages to voters from the President, tracking polls, and so on—over issues. Someday, they’ll learn that good technology can’t match good issues or good candidates, and never will.
Given their thickheadedness, Republicans may fall for all the pious condemnations of negative ads and miss the real lesson of the 1986 election. No, the lesson is not that negative TV spots don’t work. It’s that they do, and you’d better get on the air with them fast. The most effective spots this year were Cranston’s against Zschau in California. Cranston was ready the day after the June 3 primary with a commercial attacking Zschau as a flip-flopper. Had Bruce Herschensohn won the primary, Cranston was also ready with an ad attacking him. Over the summer, the Cranston ads pounded away at Zschau, and the highly vulnerable incumbent opened a wide lead. Zschau balked at going negative, but he finally relented in early September and went with attack spots. Cranston’s lead began shrinking, and it continued to shrink week after week. But not enough. Everything Zschau did in the fall couldn’t overcome what he hadn’t done in the summer.
Fred Barnes is a senior editor of the New Republic.