JOHN KERRY will never agree to the $5 million spending cap Bill Weld proposes for their US Senate race. Big deal. Weld's not about to accede to Kerry's demand that all negative advertising be banned from the campaign. Ho-hum.
Except for a clutch of Common Cause goo-goos and media thumb-suckers, who really gives a wet slap whether Weld and Kerry pour a combined $10 million into their race, or $12 million, or $15 million? Politics is expensive. You want to win a statewide election, you burn a lot of dollars - what else is new? As long as these guys aren't spending taxpayers' money, I don't care how high their campaign budgets go.
Nor, with one caveat, do I care how negative their advertising gets. In fact, to be shamelessly candid about it, I rather enjoy negative ads. The best ones are clever and entertaining. They're more attention-grabbing than talking-head commercials, or those tiresome spots in which the candidate listens intently to some senior citizens, then strides purposefully down a corridor. And unlike football, boxing, or auto racing, nobody bleeds, breaks a bone, gets knocked unconscious, or crashes into a wall. Well, not literally.
The caveat is that even biting political ads must be truthful -- or at least defensible. A little exaggeration is forgivable, but candidates who lie about their opponents should be exposed and condemned. As in other contact sports, there ought to be penalties for players who cross the line from pugnacious competition to personal fouls.
But hey, that's only my view. If the junior senator from Massachusetts and his campaign swamis consider negative advertising to be -- as Kerry put it last week -- "kind of like pornography," they should refuse to indulge in it. Unilaterally. Just as Kerry long ago resolved not to accept PAC contributions, he can announce that regardless of what any other candidate may do, he will not stoop to defamatory campaigning. I assume, of course, that Kerry's call to forswear "pornographic" politics is the sincere exhortation of a leader, not merely the sly campaign tactic of an embattled incumbent.
But perhaps I assume too much.
In his last reelection contest, six years ago, Kerry was challenged by Republican businessman James Rappaport. I'm looking at a full-page newspaper ad published by Kerry's campaign eight days before the 1990 election. In gigantic, 70-point type, 23 words leap off the page:
"JAMES RAPPAPORT: SLIMEBALL. SLEAZE. STUPID. A JOKE. CHEAP SHOT. EMBARRASSING. TRASH. INSULTING. RUBBISH. SMEARS. KNUCKLEHEAD SMIFF. HALF-TRUTHS. GUTLESS. UGLY. HYPOCRISY. DISTORTION. SLANDER."
Is this what Kerry has in mind when he likens negative ads to pornography? When he urges Gov. Weld to steer clear of a "hatchet-job, blood-in-the-yard, negative campaign," is he referring to campaigns like the one he mounted to blacken Rappaport's name? If so -- if Kerry now repents for what he did six years ago to Rappaport -- maybe he should say so. Maybe he should even extend a belated apology.
One of the crosses Kerry bears is a reputation for being two-faced. The business with the medals illustrates why. When it served his purposes to be seen throwing away his combat medals in an antiwar demonstration, he pretended to do so ("John Kerry of Waltham . . . said before he threw his medals over the fence: 'I'm not doing this for any violent reasons, but . . . to try to make this country wake up once and for all'" -- Boston Globe, April 24, 1971). When he later wanted to soften his antiwar record, he admitted tossing not his own medals, but another man's ("Kerry, after showing a reporter his medals and ribbons on display in his Back Bay apartment, said he had disagreed with other protest leaders on throwing away medals" - Globe, Oct. 15, 1984).
It might help rehabilitate Kerry's image as a politician of no fixed principles if he Just Said No to negative campaigning -- and stuck to it. Taking such a pledge would give him the moral high ground. His rectitude would win praise from the media. The aforementioned goo-goos and thumb-suckers would press Weld to follow suit. It's not for me to tell Senator Kerry how to run his campaigns, but if he really abhors negative politics, this is a no-lose proposition.
Of course, Kerry needs to clarify just what he means by negative campaigning. So far he has said only that "you know it when you see it." Most people know it and see it in ads done by Bob Shrum, the Democrats' king of slash-and-burn. (It was Shrum who tore Mitt Romney to shreds for Ted Kennedy in 1994.) If savage attack ads are verboten, why has Kerry just hired Shrum? And shouldn't attacks made in statements to the press be just as impermissible as those made in TV spots? When Kerry spokesman Dan Payne says that Weld is "mean to people in need . . . just like Gingrich" -- isn't that negative campaigning?
I repeat: Negative ads don't offend me if they're not libelously false. But they do offend John Kerry, or so he keeps insisting. Part of being a US senator is leading by example. Let's see Kerry put his campaign where his mouth is.
(Jeff Jacoby is a columnist for The Boston Globe.)