Mike Pence’s “Confessions of a Negative Campaigner”

On Friday, I linked to my long Indianpolis Monthly profile of Mike Pence. Today, I’ll post the first of four supplemental blog posts on Indiana’s new governor.

While Pence served in Congress from 2000 to 2012, he took his first two shots at national office in 1988 and 1990. In my profile, I note how nasty those campaigns became, and we could spend hours piling up examples. “Mike Pence’s gutter brand of politics has sunk to a new low,” read one editorial in the Shelbyville News, “and for the Pence campaign, that’s saying something.”

In the aftermath of those races, Pence’s reputation bottomed out. But in the summer of 1991 he published a short essay called “Confessions of a Negative Campaigner.” The essay, which has not been available online (and which I’m posting in full, after the jump), offered a savvy first step in the rehabilitation of his political career. After all, most journalists today cite it, then glide right past the campaigns’ actual events. (Check out the “Confessions” Google trail here.)

That doesn’t mean those journalists have read the essay. “I haven’t read it,” one source told me, right before he expounded on its text, “but I’ve heard the general gist.” Given the way “Confessions of a Negative Campaigner” is frequently described, I’d guess this is true of most Hoosier journalists and political insiders. Because what you’ll notice, if you do read it, is that it’s not much of a confession. Pence sounds like he’s still smarting a bit from ’88 and ’90. He shows remorse, but not about his slimy tactics — instead, it’s about the missed opportunity to argue for his political beliefs.

Now there’s certainly something laudable about this second point, and from ’91 up to his recent run for governor Pence rarely wasted any similar opportunities. During that time, however, he also began describing his early regrets in a striking new way. “My faith says if someone strikes you on the cheek, turn the other,” he told the New York Times in 2006. “My response, after being attacked by my opponent, was to empty the silos on this guy.” I talked to multiple people close to Pence who dispute his chronology — that the opponent started it — but the key point here is that Pence started framing his political conversion in terms of forgiveness and sadness. That’s not what you’ll find in the 1991 essay, which you can see by clicking on “continue reading.” But it is a perfect example of how Pence will simplify and even rewrite his life narrative — something we’ll get into in my next supplemental post.

*  *  *

Mike Pence. “Confessions of a Negative Campaigner.” Indiana Policy Review (October 1991): pp. 5-6.

It is a trustworthy statement, deserving of full acceptance, that Christ Jesus came to save sinners, among whom I am foremost of all.

— 1 Timothy 1:15

In the wake of the 1990 election cycle, after one of the most divisive and negative campaigns in Indiana’s modern congressional history, the words of Saint Paul provide an appropriate starting point for the confessions of a negative campaigner.

Negative campaigning is wrong. That is not to say that a negative campaign is an ineffective option in a tough political race. Pollsters will attest — with great conviction — that it is the negatives that move voters. The mantra of a modern political campaign is “drive up the negatives.”

That is the advice political pros give to Republican and Democratic candidates alike, even though negative ads sell better for Democrats. (My admittedly biased explanation is that Republican voters disregard a Democrat’s negative ads as “predictable” while expecting a Republican to be “above that sort of thing.”)

But none of that explains my conversion. It would be ludicrous to argue that negative campaigning is wrong merely because it is “unfair,” or because it works better for one side than the other, or because it breaks some tactical rule.

The wrongness is not of rule violated but of opportunity lost. It is wrong, quite [simply, because*]  he or she could have brought critical issues before the citizenry.

And this wrongness is not limited to the personal but extends to the general. Yes, it was personally wrong for me to waste my moment and limited campaign dollars talking about how an opponent might or might not have financed a rural retreat. But in my party’s defeat, as unaddressed issue piled upon unaddressed issue, it seems more grievous that the faithful were left with so few clues as to how I would have governed differently.

Campaigns ought to be about three simple propositions:

First, a campaign ought to demonstrate the basic human decency of the candidate. That means your First Amendment rights end at the tip of your opponent’s nose — even in the matter of political rhetoric.

Second, a campaign ought to be about the advancement of issues whose success or failure is more significant than that of the candidate. Whether on the left or the right, candidates ought to leave a legacy — a foundation of arguments — in favor of policies upon which their successors can build. William Buckley carries with him a purposeful malapropism. “Don’t just do something,” it says, “stand there.”

Third and very much last, campaigns should be about winning. A fellow member of the Failed Politician’s Club told me recently, “Our only mistake was that we thought that winning was the most important thing we could do.” He considers it more than a literal correction that Vince Lombardi’s exact words were, “Winning isn’t everything, but wanting to win is.” (The “winning is everything” line was spoken by the ignoble and now forgotten Red Sanders.)

Negative campaigning is born of that trap. But one day soon the new candidates will step forward, faces as fresh as the morning and hearts as brave as the dawn. This breed will turn away from running “to win” and toward running “to stand.” And its representatives will see the inside of as many offices as their party will nominate them to fill.


[*] I supplied the words in brackets — it seems like a sentence or two disappeared while the essay was being formatted. Hey, it happens! I double-checked with the Review‘s editorial office, and the bracket-less text above is exactly what’s in the print issue.


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