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Shades of Gray Perspectives on Campaign Ethics
By David A. Dulio Stephen K. Medvic Candice J. Nelson
Brookings Institution PressCopyright © 2002 Brookings Institution Press
All right reserved.
Chapter OneCAMPAIGN ETHICS
Approaching the Issue
Many people snicker when they read or hear the words campaign and ethics in the same sentence. It is difficult to blame those who think that campaign ethics is an oxymoron when one thinks about all the activities that occur during campaigns that can appear to be unethical-or at the very least questionable. One need only look to the last presidential campaign to see numerous campaign practices described as such.
One of the lasting images of the battle between Vice President Albert Gore and Texas governor George W. Bush is the infamous "RATS ad." The television advertisement in question, sponsored by the Republican National Committee (RNC), contrasted the prescription drug plans offered by both candidates. Contrast ads like this are a common campaign technique designed to set one candidate's record, proposals, or stances on issues apart from his or her opponent's. However, in this particular case, the ad used some creative film-making techniques that included flashing the phrase "Bureaucrats Decide" across the screen to help depict Gore's proposed plan. The controversy over the ad began when someone realized that as "BureaucratsDecide" scrolled across the screen, the word "RATS" was isolated momentarily (see figure 1-1).
While the RNC and the creator of the ad said that the inclusion of the word "RATS" was purely an accident and that the techniques were used "so the ad would look more interesting" and have a "visual drumbeat," Democrats and the Gore campaign characterized the incident as something more, even going so far as to say that it was an intentional act to manipulate voters. Was this an attempt at subliminal advertising, something considered to be unethical by experts in the field, or was it simply an oversight on the part of the creators of the ad, who were quick to point out that "the word 'rats' flashes across [only] one of the 900 video frames that make up the ad"?
Before the first debate of the 2000 presidential campaign, a videotape of Governor Bush's debate preparation found its way into the hands of a Gore supporter and adviser. Was this a conspiracy on the part of the Gore campaign to infiltrate the Bush campaign and gain an advantage for the debates, even though the vice president was reported to be the superior debater? Was Yvette Lozano, a Bush campaign worker who was photographed by the FBI sending a package that looked similar to the one delivered to the Gore supporter, a spy for the Gore team? Or was a fake videotape sent by the Bush campaign in order to spur accusations against the Gore campaign of dirty tricks, or at least disrupt the vice president's debate preparation?
There are plenty of other examples of questionable campaign conduct from the 2000 presidential election. For example, early in the Republican primary a pro-Bush organization ran radio advertisements in New York State claming that Senator John McCain, Bush's chief primary rival, had voted against breast cancer research. The ad highlighted a few items that McCain had voted against, which "were included in more than $13 billion in what [McCain] characterized as pork-barrel spending requested by lawmakers." Many, including the McCain campaign team, challenged the legitimacy and truthfulness of the ad, pointing to the large number of other bills that McCain had supported over his career. Was it unethical for the pro-Bush organization and its professional consultants to make this ad, which can be characterized as misleading at best and false at worst? The ad was technically true-McCain did vote against the bills in question-but was it ethical?
Questions about the ethical purity of a campaign advertisement lie not only in what is said in the ad but in the implications the ad makes about the candidate(s) featured in it. The NAACP ran an ad entitled "James Byrd" on behalf of Al Gore's campaign during the 2000 campaign. James Byrd, one will recall, was the Texas man who had been dragged to his death behind a pickup truck while George W. Bush was governor; the story of those responsible spurred calls for hate crime legislation in the state of Texas. The ad featured the following audio:
I'm Rene Mullings, James Byrd's daughter. On June 7, 1998, in Texas my father was killed. He was beaten, chained, and then dragged three miles to his death, all because he was black. So when Governor George W. Bush refused to support hate crimes legislation, it was like my father was killed all over again. Call George W. Bush and tell him to support hate crimes legislation. We won't be dragged away from our future.
The text of the ad's script is all very likely true. James Byrd was killed on June 7, 1998; it is difficult to quarrel with the feelings of Mr. Byrd's daughter; and Bush, the sitting governor, did oppose the hate crimes legislation that was introduced. However, this ad also implies something that may be totally different. One observer stated, "the real ethical question surrounding this ad arises from the implied message, which is clearly something along the lines of: George W. Bush doesn't care if black people get dragged to their death behind pickup trucks." Were the facts in the "James Byrd" ad correct? Yes. Was the implication in the spot accurate? No. What, then, are we to conclude about the ethical nature of the ad? Whatever the real answers are to the questions surrounding the ads discussed above, the appearance of unethical behavior and dastardly deeds is undeniable, and in the current context of elections in the United States, replete as it is with cynicism, citizens are not likely to give those in question the benefit of the doubt.
These examples from the 2000 presidential campaign are surely the tip of the iceberg. In fact, some would argue that unethical acts are omnipresent in campaigns at all levels today. For instance, that billions of dollars are spent on campaigns each election cycle raises questions for many. For some, the simple act of a candidate taking a contribution from a corporation's political action committee or an individual donor is an unethical act because it can lead to access to legislators-and potentially to influence in government-that nondonors do not have. However, others do not see as clear a link between contributions and corruption. As one citizen in Ohio put it, "How [do people] think campaigns are funded? Would [they] rather have only the wealthy in office, [or] those who can afford to run without taking campaign contributions?"
Accusations of unethical behavior in campaigns raise serious questions about the health of our democracy. In fact, each campaign actor in modern elections-candidates, professional political consultants, political parties, organized interest groups, the media, and even citizens-can be associated with specific behavior that might be considered unethical. Professional consultants, for example, have been accused of purposely manipulating the American electorate through their tactics, especially in television commercials. Most of the time these criticisms are focused on "negative" advertisements that consultants are blamed for creating. One example of a very questionable act on the part of campaign consultants occurred in the 1996 Virginia Senate race between incumbent senator John Warner and challenger Mark Warner. The John Warner campaign aired a commercial that tried to define his opponent as a "liberal" by showing him shaking hands with former Virginia governor Douglas Wilder as Bill Clinton, then president, looked on. While Mark Warner was at that event, he was not where the photograph suggested he was. The creators of the ad had doctored the photograph by electronically placing Mark Warner's head on the body of Senator Robb, who had originally been in the photo. Was altering Mark Warner's position at the event-he was just out of the frame used in the picture-unethical? Or was the ad essentially true because Mark Warner had been at the event?
Changes in the context of elections in the United States have forced political parties to rely more and more on the campaign finance loophole that allows them to raise and spend unlimited amounts of money-so-called soft money. As noted above, for some observers the mere existence of such huge and unregulated amounts of money is enough to render the practice unethical because of the ties it creates between donors, parties, and candidates. There is an implication of a quid pro quo between donors and the recipients. In other instances, similar appearances of corruption have caused the U.S. Supreme Court to uphold campaign contribution limits from individual donors first outlined in the 1974 Federal Election Campaign Act. At this point, however, raising and spending soft money is legal: but is it ethical? Many critics also consider the activity of interest groups and especially their electioneering components-political action committees (PACs)-to be unethical, because the money they spend on "issue advocacy" campaigns is thought to skirt campaign finance regulations.
Modern media outlets have also been criticized for actions that hamper campaigns. For instance, in nearly every election cycle the media are criticized for focusing on the "horse race" aspect of campaigns-who is ahead and who is behind in the polls-or that they cover only sensational and startling events, such as Gary Bauer's fall from a platform at a campaign stop in 2000 or Senator Robert Dole's tumble from a stage during a 1996 campaign, rather than meaningful issues. We can hardly discount these criticisms when we think of the time and column inches devoted to discussion of Vice President Al Gore's makeup and perspiration during the presidential debates. Critics may consider the lack of issue coverage to be unethical because stories about polls, candidates' balance, or makeup do not contribute much information to the electorate during a campaign. The question then becomes: Do the media have a responsibility to convey information to the electorate during a campaign?
Finally, even citizens can be accused of unethical actions during campaigns. In its ideal form, democracy requires citizens to actively take part in the electoral process during elections as well as to become informed about candidates and issues. As long ago as Berelson, Lazarsfeld, and McPhee's classic study, Voting, scholars saw that the "requirements commonly assumed for the successful operation of democracy are not met by the behavior of the 'average' citizen." The evidence of sliding electoral turnout levels since the 1960s and surveys showing that the American electorate is not well informed about politics or issues in elections only reaffirm the belief that we should "temper some of the requirements set by our traditional normative theory for the typical citizen" and that the electorate is not meeting its responsibility.
Questions of unethical acts or lapses in ethical responsibilities are by no means limited to elections at the federal level; many actions similar to those outlined above have been seen in elections at the state and local level in races for mayor, state representative, and even the judiciary.
The kinds of questions posed above are not easily answered. For example, what constitutes an unethical act? The question of campaign ethics goes beyond mere "ethical dilemmas" or trying to decide if a particular questionable act is aboveboard or not. Questions of campaign ethics are broader and go to the obligations of those who take part in election campaigns.
The chapters in this book are an effort to examine broad questions of ethics in campaigns from the perspective of the actors who play critical roles in modern elections-candidates, political consultants, parties, interest groups, the media, and citizens. They are an effort to outline, understand, assess, and critique the role and responsibilities of each of these actors. Academicians who have conducted research and taught courses on the different electoral actors contribute, as do several practitioners from the world of campaigning and campaign reform. The contributors in this volume take on the difficult task of differentiating between acceptable and unacceptable behavior, rather than assuming that all campaign tactics are corrosive. Each electoral actor is considered in a chapter by a scholar; a shorter chapter written by a practitioner follows immediately. The practitioners' chapters are not responses to the scholarly chapter per se, but are a way to ground the discussion of campaign ethics in the "real world" of campaign politics. For example, Professor Robert E. Denton's chapter on the media precedes a chapter by Paul Taylor, a former Washington Post reporter and the current executive director of the Alliance for Better Campaigns, who provides a practical perspective on campaign ethics with a focus on the media.
Before the discussion of campaign ethics from the standpoint of different electoral actors, Dale Miller and Stephen Medvic, in chapter 2, provide a theoretical foundation from which to begin. Making evaluations about what is in fact ethical in campaigning requires some standard against which actual campaign activity can be judged. Before creating a framework that can be applied in just this sort of way, Miller and Medvic explain what is meant by the term ethics. They note that the term is used differently by philosophers than by the rest of us. For philosophers, ethics is concerned with the question of how we are to lead our lives; morality, or the evaluation of actions as right or wrong, is simply part of the broader field of ethics. In everyday life, however, ethics means something different-specifically, the rules and standards that are used to judge individuals' actions.
This is an important distinction because the use and applicability of the term in politics generally, and especially in campaigns, is closer to the everyday definition than to the philosophers' perspective. For example, many legislatures have ethics committees that hold their members accountable for their specific actions. Two of the most well known are the ethics committees in the U.S. House of Representatives (the Committee on Standards of Official Conduct) and the U.S. Senate (Select Committee on Ethics). Both bodies have ethical guidelines that members must follow, but they deal with issues that are more tangible than what philosophers are typically concerned about. For example, former Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich was formally reprimanded and fined $300,000 by the U.S. House of Representatives' ethics committee for activities surrounding a course he taught at two Georgia colleges between 1993 and 1995; and Senator Hillary Rodham Clinton, after congressional watchdog groups raised concerns, sought and received approval from the Senate committee for the $8 million advance she received for a book deal. Most of the questions these and other ethics committees deal with are specific and narrow judgments about what is and is not appropriate. However, to fully understand ethics one must look not only to these specific questions but also to what ethics means on a broader scale.
Having clarified the term ethics, Miller and Medvic proceed with a discussion of a framework for evaluating campaign activity. They identify two schools of thought with respect to the obligations of campaign actors. The "self-interest" perspective holds that, beyond following universal moral rules that apply to everyone in nearly all situations, individuals and groups are obligated only to advocate on behalf of their own interests in the campaign. In other words, candidates are ethically free to consider their own victory-and consultants their clients, parties their agendas, and so on-before thinking of the public interest. Indeed, according to this argument, a system in which people guard their own interests may very well be the best system for achieving the common good.
The "civic responsibility" perspective, however, argues that campaign actors have a duty to enhance democracy. The democratic ideal that this camp embraces includes the classical notions of an informed electorate and a debate-like campaign. Some version of a deliberative campaign, then, would be the ultimate goal, and anything campaign actors do to hinder the realization of that goal would be considered unethical. In practice, this means that civic responsibility proponents will be more willing, for instance, to label a television ad misleading or untruthful than would those adopting the campaign advocacy perspective.
Excerpted from Shades of Gray Perspectives on Campaign Ethics by David A. Dulio Stephen K. Medvic Candice J. Nelson Copyright © 2002 by Brookings Institution Press
Excerpted by permission. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.