- The Washington Times - Tuesday, August 7, 2012

Connecticut Sen. Joe Lieberman slammed the Obama and Romney campaigns Tuesday for engaging in what he considers record-high negativity during this year’s presidential race.

Mr. Lieberman, an independent former Democrat, made his comments on the same day that a pro-Obama political action committee debuted an ad that features a former steelworker linking Bain Capital’s closure of his plant to his wife’s death from cancer.

The senator, who will retire at the end of this year, challenged both candidates to shift their focus toward laying out their own plans for the country and argued that increasing divisiveness in the campaign is only working to shake voter’s confidence in their nation and its government.

“It’s exactly the opposite of what our country needs,” he said on CNN’s “Starting Point.” “Part of what our country needs now is a healthy dose of vision of what both of these candidates will do if they get elected, instead of trying to scare us into how terrible the other one [is].”

Negative campaigning is by no means uncommon in high-stakes politics, but analysts say President Obama and Mitt Romney have gone negative unusually early in a race that still has three months to go.

The race has thus far been defined almost entirely by criticism between the candidates. Mr. Obama has repeatedly accused Mr. Romney of hiding his financial history and flip-flopping on issues like gun control and abortion, while the presumptive Republican presidential nominee has countered that the president’s economic policies are leading the country down a path to financial ruin.

The Obama and Romney campaigns did not respond to emails requesting comment for this story.

Both candidates have been criticized at times by their own parties about the campaign’s negative tenor. The latest to join the fray was former New Jersey Gov. Christine Todd Whitman, a Republican who Tuesday accused Mr. Romney of playing the blame game in an effort to appeal to far-right Republicans.

“We have so many issues that need to be discussed by our candidates, and all we’re getting is name-calling right now,” she said in an interview on CNN.

Perhaps the most negative ad yet was introduced Tuesday by Priorities Action USA, a super PAC that was founded last year by former Obama White House officials but is not officially connected to the president.

The ad features John Soptic, a former employee of GST Steel in Kansas City, lamenting how his company went bankrupt in 2001 — eight years after it was purchased by Bain and two years after Mr. Romney says he left the firm — leading him to lose his job and health insurance, which in turn delayed the discovery and unsuccessful treatment of his wife’s cancer.

“I do not think Mitt Romney realizes what he has done to anyone. And furthermore, I do not think Mitt Romney is concerned,” Mr. Soptic says in the ad from the PAC, which plans to spend $30 million on ads in battleground states this year.

John Geer, a political science professor at Vanderbilt University, said several factors — including both candidates’ flaws, rising partisanship on Capitol Hill and the rise of super PACs that often go more negative than the candidates they endorse — could make this the most negative presidential campaign ever.

“You put all three of those ingredients together and it’s kind of like a perfect cocktail for negativity,” said Mr. Geer, who heads up the Vanderbilt/YouGov Ad Rating Project, which studies voters’ reactions to positive and negative campaign ads. “As we approach the election, things usually get more negative but we’re already bumping up against a ceiling here.”

Mr. Geer acknowledged that campaigns are getting more and more ugly over time, but he disagreed with Mr. Lieberman and other critics who say the trend is bad for democracy and voter confidence.

He said the public is every bit as skeptical of positive ads as they are of negative ones, and also refuted claims that negative campaigning depresses voter turnout and leads to political divisiveness. Mr. Geer argued that recent studies have debunked conventional thought by showing that negative ads may increase voter awareness and turnout and that the ads are a result of growing polarization between Democrats and Republicans, rather than the cause.

“Positive ads are not some panacea and negative ads are not a big problem,” he said. “The public understands that they need know about the weaknesses of candidates.”

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