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The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Wednesday, November 6, 2002

Year of the smear? Well, no

By David Shapiro

The 2002 political campaign ended on such a frantic note that I was afraid to answer the phone or open the mailbox in the final days.

"Did you know that Linda Lingle opposes a woman's right to choose?"

"Did you know that Mazie Hirono is soft on drug pushers?"

"Did you know that Rep. So-and-so wants to sell Hawai'i to the big oil companies?"

Well, no, I didn't know any of those things because none of them is true.

The nonsense hit full bloom when Gov. Ben Cayetano tried to fire up Democratic troops by telling them that Chinatown bookies had Hirono winning the governor's race by 3 percent, and Chinatown is never wrong.

I soon received a mass e-mailing on the subject from Bob Awana, Lingle's campaign chairman. I figured Awana wanted to know why Cayetano was consorting with gamblers instead of having them busted, which would have been a fair question.

But no, Awana wanted to argue with the governor about how Chinatown is really betting.

"Shame on Ben," he said. "Those who know better realize that Chinatown doesn't handicap by percentage points. They do it by numbers. And for the first time ever, they've got the Republicans, Linda and Duke, in the lead."

Mercy, please.

Complaints about "negative" campaigning became as much of a buzzword in the 2002 election as the mantra of "change." Disgust with the mudslinging was given as the main excuse for Hawai'i's voter alienation.

Groups such as the Hawai'i Pro-Democracy Initiative are gearing up to give the tone of political campaigning a lot of attention between now and the next election. The scrutiny is welcome — as long as we're careful in defining our terms. We need to remember that American politics is an adversarial process that has stood the test of time. It would be a mistake to overly sanitize political campaigns.

Fair and ethical questioning of an opponent's record and positions is by nature "negative," but it's vital information if we're to wisely select our leaders.

When we're too quick to cry "smear" in the face of any political criticism, unfounded complaints of negative campaigning become a form of negative campaigning.

We really don't want political campaigns in which candidates do nothing but mouth "positive" platitudes about themselves that are never challenged. False positives are as dangerous as false negatives, and voters would learn little that is useful from such a process.

The key words are "fair" and "ethical." It's not so much "negative" campaigning that turns off voters, but campaigning that is inane, deceptive, mean-spirited and off the point.

Voters resent campaigns that dwell on the trivial instead of what's important, that aim to distort rather than illuminate, that inspire hateful emotions instead of thoughtful debate.

We saw some of both in 2002. Candidates and their supporters made forays to the dark side — especially in the frenzied final days — but they also waged clean and hard-fought battles that clearly defined the choices for voters.

As in any election, it came down to whether we were satisfied with the status quo or wanted to try something new. The majority ruled.

Non-voters who stayed home to protest the negativity only guaranteed themselves more of the same. The tone of politics won't change until individual voters make it a mission to actively reward the kind of campaigning they like and punish the kind they don't like.

Our political process isn't always pretty and certainly could stand improvement, but it beats leaving the outcome to Chinatown.

David Shapiro can be reached by e-mail at dave@volcanicash.net.