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Matt Lauer Challenges California's Gubernatorial Candidates to "Stop the Negative Ads" Opinion: Stop with the "Stop with the Negative Ads"

During this week's debate, Matt Lauer asked Meg Whitman and Jerry Brown to pull their negative ads. It's sounds nice, but it's a silly idea.

During a recent debate in the gubernatorial race in California, Matt Lauer asked Meg Whitman and Jerry Brown if they would both pledge to pull their negative ads from the air during these last few days of the campaign. It made for good television.


Lauer's challenge certainly got the audience fired up, but I think the idea that pulling negative ads will solve the problems with political campaigns is totally misguided.

First, how do you decide what exactly is a negative ad? Matt Lauer says "If it smells like negativity, it's negativity" but I'm not sure that homey aphorism would really hold up as a litmus test. This ad, for example, talks mostly about Jerry Brown's record of accomplishments during his first stint as governor of California, but it's all in service of one devastating anti-Whitman zinger. It's hardly an attack ad, but it smells like negativity to me.

Here's another example. The Brown campaign used footage from Lauer's on-stage challenge to make a new YouTube ad, below.


Did you notice the mind-bending irony? In the clip, Meg Whitman defends a candidate's right to air ads that criticize an opponent's positions on the issues. And the Brown campaign has used that footage to craft an ad criticizing her position on that issue. In other words, this Brown ad is criticizing Whitman's defense of negative ads, but it is itself an instance of the kind of negative ad Whitman is defending. It's real Lewis Carroll territory. It also demonstrates that defining negativity in a useful way is hard.

Moreover, weaknesses in a candidate's background or views should be fair game in a campaign. The idea that voters could make an informed decision in a campaign that's totally devoid of criticism is ridiculous. Imagine a candidate has a history of corruption. That's relevant. Voters should know. Imagine a candidate promises (with positivity!) to balance the budget and cut taxes across the board and expand services. His opponent should be able to point out that that's impossible.

And at the end of the day, the biggest problem with campaigns isn't negativity; it's superficiality. Positive and negative ads alike regularly trade in misleading and vague language that's designed to take advantage of voters' lack of understanding. Matt Lauer would have done the public a better service by asking the candidates to sustain a clear, substantive, and yes, critical discussion of any given issue facing the state.

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