So why do we believe that civility and etiquette are still possible? We know that negative ads work. But we also know the reason they work is that they're almost always ignored by the subject of the attack for fear of giving the attacks more publicity. (Remember John Kerry's decision to ignore the 2004 Swift Boat ads?)
There is also evidence, however, that if the candidate under attack challenges the accuracy of the ads head-on, proves it and keeps at it, the candidate continuing to go negative will pay a high, even fatal, political price.
That happened in 2005 in the Virginia gubernatorial campaign between Democratic Lt. Gov. Timothy Kaine and Republican former Attorney General Jerry Kilgore.
After Kilgore's daily attack ads, Kaine replied with ads making Kilgore's negativity the major campaign issue. The result: Editorials and news articles appeared highlighting Kilgore's negativity. The tide turned. Kaine overcame a substantial deficit in the polls and easily won the contest. It's an important lesson. Kilgore's negative ads backfired.
That lesson in Virginia can be a national model in 2012.
Older Americans, more than most, take their elections seriously and are fed up with the negativity. All of us — young, middle-aged and older — can demand that Obama and Romney stop the food fight. We can demand that, instead, they debate the issues. Give us specific ideas and specific solutions for America's most pressing problems — big solutions for the economy, for health care, for reducing our $15 trillion national debt, for ensuring the long-term solvency of Social Security and Medicare.
Sooner rather than later, the candidates will have to listen and respond. Then our headline will turn out to be true: There will be a rebirth of civility and etiquette in American politics.
Lanny Davis was special counsel to President Bill Clinton. Michael Steele was Republican National Committee chairman. They are partners in a new public affairs/strategic communications firm in Washington, D.C., Purple Nation Solutions.
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