- The Washington Times - Monday, February 14, 2000

Arizona Senator John McCain has suddenly discovered that waging a negative campaign has a downside. After the attack ads he ran in New Hampshire and South Carolina, Mr. McCain learned that his unfavorable rating has increased among South Carolina's electorate. All of which explains why he has abruptly halted some of the most disingenuous commercials the presidential campaign has seen so far.
Mr. McCain initially jumped into the swamp when he distorted the budget plan proposed by Texas Gov. George W. Bush. "There is a fundamental difference here. I believe we must save Social Security. We must pay down the debt," Mr. McCain asserted in a Jan. 10 Republican debate. "For us to put all of the surplus into tax cuts" as he accused Mr. Bush of proposing "is not a conservative effort," he said. "Let's pay down that $5.6 trillion debt."
Mr. Bush reminded the senator that the Bush program would set aside more than $2 trillion of the surplus related to Social Security, an amount sufficient to retire more than half the federal debt held by the public. But Mr. McCain wasn't listening. Five days later Mr. McCain erroneously charged , "Governor Bush's plan has not one penny for Social Security … and not one penny for paying down the national debt."
Meanwhile, Mr. McCain had been running an ad in New Hampshire appropriately mistitled "Every Dime" in which he falsely asserted, "The one big difference between me and the others [is that] I won't take every last dime of the surplus and spend it on tax cuts that mostly benefit the wealthy." Relying on the fact that voters would draw the intended inferences from his remarks, Mr. McCain effectively used a deliberately untruthful TV ad in New Hampshire and South Carolina to amplify charges about Mr. Bush's budget plan that Mr. McCain frequently made during debates. Undoubtedly, the ad played an important role in his victory in the Feb. 1 New Hampshire primary and in his subsequent ability to erase Mr. Bush's sizable lead in the polls in South Carolina. That's where the next Republican primary will take place Saturday.
Mr. McCain had to know that his tactics would invite a response from Mr. Bush, who belatedly used the airwaves in South Carolina to correct Mr. McCain's distortions. "John McCain's ad about Governor Bush's tax plan isn't true, and McCain knows it," Mr. Bush's ad asserted. Referring to former Republican congressman Vin Weber, the ad correctly observed, "McCain's economic adviser says he'd support Bush's tax plan: Two trillion to protect Social Security, pay down the debt and a real tax cut."
Notwithstanding his own misinformation, Mr. McCain then accused Mr. Bush of engaging in negative campaigning and distorting his position. "Do we really want another politician in the White House America can't trust?" Mr. McCain's follow-up ad asked. Then he had the audacity to insist for days that the question was not aimed directly at Mr. Bush. In a subsequent ad, Mr. McCain not only repeated the initial distortion: "Governor Bush uses all of the surplus for tax cuts." Mr. McCain accused Mr. Bush of "twist[ing] the truth like Clinton."
It was Mr. McCain's explicitly unfair comparisons of Mr. Bush to President Clinton that caused Mr. McCain's unfavorable rating to rise among Republicans in South Carolina. In promising to abandon the negative attack ads, Mr. McCain has demanded Mr. Bush pull his response ads as well, including the highly effective ad in which Mr. Bush rightly asserts, "Politics is tough, but when John McCain compared me to Bill Clinton and said I was untrustworthy, that's over the line. Disagree with me, fine. But do not challenge my integrity."
A McCain campaign adviser told The Washington Post that his candidate "wants to run the same kind of campaign he ran in New Hampshire." Doubtless he would, but Mr. Bush is responding to his attacks this time. It's a little late for Mr. McCain to demand a cease-fire now.

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