All pledges aside, the presidential campaign was bound to get ugly. Sure enough, as Vice President Al Gore and Texas Gov. George W. Bush approached the post-Labor Day homestretch to November, the two major political parties started a virtual mud-fest on the Internet.
On Sept. 1, the Republican National Committee went negative with a snarky 30-second TV spot painting Gore as an insincere, double-talking politician. The ad featured a new RNC Web site, called Gorewillsayanything.com, which posts a laundry list of attacks on the vice president.
The Republicans are using the site to castigate Gore for several gaffes, including his now-infamous 1996 fund-raiser at a Buddhist temple and his March 1999 CNN interview in which he averred that he “took the initiative in creating the Internet.” (The Gore camp insists its candidate was trying to describe how, during his congressional career, he pushed for legislation that sparked the Internet’s growth.) The site also challenges the notion that Gore can take any credit for the U.S. economy. (The real credit, according to the RNC, goes to Fed Chairman Alan Greenspan, the Republican-controlled Congress, and the high-tech industry.)
The TV ad was lambasted by Democrats as a violation of Bush’s pledge not to go negative. The Texas governor defended the ad, saying it was tongue-in-cheek. But what was lost in the tempest is this: Any no-negative campaign pledges were broken long ago—online.
Although the party and campaign organizations are nominally separate entities, in reality, they work closely together. The RNC and its counterpart, the Democratic National Committee, are enthusiastically using the Web to do surrogate dirty work for Bush and Gore. The attack sites are cheaper to create and deliver more information than any 30-second TV spot.
Gorewillsayanything.com is hardly the only negative major-party Web site. The RNC also maintains Gorereinventionconvention.com, which portrays Gore as a disgraceful ideological chameleon; and GorePollution.com, which blasts the vice president for allowing environmentally destructive zinc mining on his family farm in Tennessee.
The DNC has gotten into the act with IknowwhatyoudidinTexas.com, a spoof of horror movies with sections titled “Scary Record” and “The Daily Bleed.” Then there’s Bush-Cheney.net, which focuses on attacking former Defense Secretary and GOP running mate Dick Cheney—it has an oil well that spouts dollar signs. MillionairesforBush.com attacks Bush’s tax-cut proposal as a boon for the wealthy.
The various sites serve multiple purposes: They free the major parties’ official Web sites to tout mostly positive messages about their respective nominees, and they give the parties fresh news pegs on which to hang negative attacks on opponents. Most important, all the sites invite visitors to send in their e-mail addresses for campaign updates. The major parties thus will have electronic treasure troves for mobilizing voter turnout as the race goes down to the wire.
“I love this stuff. I think it’s great for democracy,” says Michael Cornfield, research director of the Democracy Online project at George Washington University. “They’ve got passion, they’ve got humor. I wish we could do away with television and just have this.”