The Permanent Negative Campaign

At least by one measure of partisanship, things in Washington are worse than ever before.

"The permanent campaign" is old news. Sidney Blumenthal published a book with that title 25 years ago. What's new is the permanent negative campaign: All attacks, all the time—even when no election is coming up anytime soon.

When Harry Reid, D-Nev., got elected Senate minority leader after the November election, he set up a Democratic war room. "War," as in, fighting the enemy. The National Republican Senatorial Committee blasted Reid for creating "a 'war room' to organize Democratic attacks."

When Karl Rove was promoted to deputy White House chief of staff, the Democratic National Committee circulated "a brief history of Roveian dirty tricks and skullduggery" and rhetorically asked President Bush, "You promoted this man?"

Meanwhile, the Republican National Committee e-mailed a 13-page document to a million people, asking, "Who is Harry Reid?" The GOP's answer: "Chief Democrat Obstructionist." Reid returned fire with some pretty harsh words about Bush. "When he came here, he said he wanted to be a uniter, not a divider," Reid said on February 8. "I am beginning to think that those statements are just absolutely false."

Now the great debate over Social Security has begun. And it looks like a war. Last weekend, a liberal advocacy group ran an attack ad targeting Rep. Jim McCrery, R-La., who chairs the Ways and Means Committee's Social Security Subcommittee, in his hometown newspaper. Meanwhile, a conservative group has begun a campaign to undermine the credibility of AARP, the 35 million-member organization of older Americans that opposes Bush's plan to change Social Security.

The president's State of the Union speech was not exactly a love-fest. Some Democrats in the chamber shouted "No! No!" when Bush described Social Security as "headed toward bankruptcy."

Then on February 12, Howard Dean, now Democratic National Committee chairman, said, "The Republicans know the America they want, and they are not afraid to use any means to get there."

"It's politics, and the politics is playing around us all the time," said Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist, R-Tenn. It is politics. And politics today is war—all the time.

"I think there is an arms race," said Democratic political consultant Michael Feldman, who was a senior adviser to then-Vice President Gore. "The warriors in the battle for public attention are at work 24 hours a day."

Why is this happening? Consultants blame technology. Dan Schnur, a veteran California Republican consultant, said, "The advances in technology make the news cycle move that much faster and make the attacks that much harsher." Feldman observed, "As one side raises the decibel level and becomes harsher in its rhetoric, the other side usually rises to meet that level of harshness."

In war, it's called escalation. Schnur explained, "If you're going to top the last attack that went out, the one that you send out needs to be that much nastier and that much harsher. So it does escalate."

Both parties concentrate on rallying their own forces—the true believers, whom they can now reach quickly and cheaply. "It leads to an ideological escalation in both parties," Schnur said. "If you only hear one side of the story—from your favorite blog or your favorite talk-show host—you're not engaging in the broader discussion about the future of government."

And Feldman said, "If the result is deadlock in an environment of negative political discourse, then I think we all lose."

Are things in Washington worse than ever before? Where's the love? Compare Gallup Polls taken around Valentine's Day with those in years past.

President Johnson was pretty controversial. His tenure was marked by the war in Vietnam, student protests, and racial violence. In February 1968, LBJ was not very popular in his own party. He got just 56 percent approval from Democrats and 24 percent from Republicans—a 32-point difference.

A few years later, President Nixon was in deep trouble over Watergate. Around Valentine's Day 1974, Republicans gave Nixon a lukewarm rating, 55 percent approval. Just 14 percent of Democrats approved of his performance. The parties were 41 points apart.

Johnson and Nixon were not so much polarizing figures as unpopular figures. When they got in trouble, even their own parties were not strongly there for them.

How about in 1999, after President Clinton's year of living dangerously (Monica Lewinsky, the Starr report, impeachment)? Clinton drew 91 percent support from fellow Democrats in February 1999, the month the Senate acquitted him. His support among Republicans was surprisingly high—35 percent. That's a 56-point difference.

In February 2002, the ratings were all sweetness and light for President Bush. The 9/11 attacks and the war in Afghanistan had brought Americans together. Bush had 98 percent approval from Republicans and a remarkable 67 percent approval from Democrats—a gap of just 31 points.

The era of good feeling ended with the Iraq war. Last month, Bush's approval was 94 percent among Republicans, but just 18 percent among Democrats. That's a 76-point difference, the biggest gap ever registered in a Valentine's season Gallup Poll.

So, at least by one measure, things in Washington are worse than ever before. As Harry Truman once said, "You want a friend in Washington? Get a dog." These days, you might need a pit bull.