Used to be that patriotism was the last refuge of scoundrels. Now it's crime. This issue has distorted, cheapened and poisoned this year's election campaign like no other. It lends itself to lies and demagoguery, smears and pettifoggery. When whipped-up crime hysteria is allowed to dominate the political debate, it brings out the worst in politicians, even the good ones, and drowns out nearly everything else.
Anti-crime demagoguery is largely responsible for the negative tone of Florida's gubernatorial election. In one of the nastiest political brawls in recent history, Gov. Lawton Chiles and Republican challenger Jeb Bush are smearing each other with distortions, innuendos, personal attacks and outright lies. Crime is the Scud missile of this campaign and truth the casualty.
The crime issue has made a liar out of Jeb Bush and a character assassin out of Lawton Chiles. If only half of what these two men are saying about each other were true, Bush should be serving time, not running for governor, and Chiles should not only be defeated but tarred and feathered.
The Bush campaign scraped rock bottom last week with its television ad that features a Pinellas mother whose 10-year-old daughter was abducted and murdered 14 years ago. The killer of Elisa Nelson has been sentenced to death three times but never executed. His case is still on appeal in the courts. The murder victim's mother, in both the television ad and in a mailing by the Bush campaign, says her daughter's killer "is still on death row and we're still waiting for justice." She adds: "We won't get it from Lawton Chiles because he's too liberal on crime."
Bush acknowledged that there is nothing Chiles can do to hasten the execution of Elisa Nelson's killer, but he defended this reprehensible ad on the ground that this case is a symbol of how political leaders and the courts have failed the victims of crime.
Chiles has not stooped as low as Bush, but the governor's attack ads are nothing for him to be proud of. Like Bush's, they distort and insinuate. Furious over Bush's attacks on the crime issue, Chiles is counterattacking by trying to impugn Bush's integrity. He accuses Bush of failing to pay business taxes, associating with "deadbeats and crooks" and using his political connections to help a sleazy health care mogul who "embezzled more than $230-million from Medicare _ senior citizens." The ads also charge that Bush "borrowed from an S&L, and when it went belly up, taxpayers had to pay over $4-million . . . while Bush and his partners made a million dollar profit."
Bush calls the charges "lies." And they do take considerable liberty with the truth, especially the S&L charge. Chiles won't go so far as to say Bush did anything wrong or illegal. The governor insists he is only raising questions. Bush has admitted that he had dealings with some people who turned out be to sleazebags and says he has not always been a good judge of character. The kind of judgment a person would bring to public office is relevant.
To Chiles' credit, he did try to talk issues in the early weeks of the campaign. But with Jeb Bush demagoguing the crime issue and distorting Chiles record, that was getting him nowhere. The more he talked about infant mortality, education and crime prevention, the more he fell behind Bush in the polls. The governor decided the high road was leading him over the cliff. His media advisers and political consultants _ the invisible vermin of American politics _ told him if he wanted to lose to just keep talking about health care.
Chiles told the Washington Post's David Broder recently that he dislikes this kind of campaigning, that it runs counter to the kind of politics he has tried to practice in political life. But he felt he had no choice but to go negative. The state's voters cannot escape their share of the blame.
Everyone deplores negative campaigning. But the fact is, it works. After running 5 to 10 percentage points behind Bush in recent weeks, Chiles has now pulled even with his challenger, according to last week's poll by Associated Industries of Florida. I sense that undecided voters are moving toward Chiles and that he is going to edge out Bush in the final lap.
If nothing else, Chiles is a known quantity to Floridians; Jeb Bush is not. Chiles has a solid record of achievement as governor. Bush is a conservative ideologue who has never held elected office. Not even the dirty campaigning and slashing personal attacks can blur the stark choice they offer Floridians.
Philip Gailey is editor of editorials of the Times.