Minnesota Nice misplaced in politics

We all knew the whole Minnesota Nice routine would have to go wrong someday. There’s no way the collective citizenry of one state could possibly keep up the act forever. Around the country, if you mention the word Minnesota, everybody immediately equates it with niceness. But this time it’s gone too far.
A bunch of politicians and journalists are running around the state pushing an informal agreement called the Minnesota Compact. Critics around the country have deemed the compact the ultimate manifestation of Minnesota Nice, and saying such a reasonable alternative to ugly campaigns could only have come out of Minnesota. But is the compact really the answer to dirty politics?
The Minnesota Compact was the brainchild of Tom Hamburger, the Star Tribune’s former Washington bureau chief. The idea, which has gained a rather long and prestigious list of supporters, is a list of four voluntary guidelines intended to clean up political campaigns and empower citizen groups as watchdogs.
The four main premises of the compact are as follows:
ù Candidate’s likeness or voice must be present in at least 50 percent of all television ads. No misleading or attack ads are allowed.
ù Candidates participate in at least two debates disseminated by print and broadcast media, with independent, nonpartisan sponsors.
ù No horse-race or inside-baseball coverage — only issues of concern to Minnesotans and candidates’ stands on those issues.
ù Potential voters will take part in at least one organized discussion on the election and comment on candidates’ and journalists’ behavior.
The Minnesota Compact is couched in a notion that has been floating around the journalism profession for a few years now: something called “civic” or “public” journalism. The notion requires journalists and media professionals to engage the public in debates regarding how news should be covered. The ultimate goal is to force journalists to actively involve the community in the actual reporting of the news.
The compact also advocates citizen involvement. In fact, citizen groups play the most important role in the whole scheme. Compact supporters suggest that the four guidelines, especially the fourth one, will give voters a reason to believe in the political system again.
However, there is one small problem with ideas like civic journalism. To involve members of the community in news judgment — people who have had no training in journalism — is to risk disengaging your staff. Reporters and editors (for the most part) have spent years in school learning the intricate procedures for making and packaging news. If anyone off the street can have just as much of an influence in news judgment, and can even help you put it together, what need is there for a trained professional?
However, the framers of the compact do have some valid concerns regarding negative campaigning allowed by the media. The Minnesota Compact basically emerged from the markedly vicious nature of the past few campaign seasons in Minnesota. The John Marty/Arne Carlson gubernatorial and Tad Jude/Bill Luther congressional campaigns of 1994 are perfect examples of a process gone wrong. These campaigns were known for their broadcast attack ads.
The only political party to subscribe to the Minnesota Compact is the Minnesota Independence Party. Minnesota’s Democratic-Farmer-Labor Party and the Independent Republican Party of Minnesota are playing a game of “We’ll do it if they do.” Although the two major parties claim there is a dire need to end campaign mudslinging, they hesitate to jump on the compact’s bandwagon.
This may be a good thing, since some compact supporters have already returned to their old ways. An example is Paul Wellstone, who heartily embraced the Minnesota Compact in a July 1995 opinion piece in the Star Tribune. Since writing that glowing recommendation, Wellstone has developed what analysts consider attack ads.
Therein lies the problem. Attack ads work. Although they may disconnect many voters, others respond to such tactics. Little can be done to keep politicians from using this clearly successful method. Furthermore, voters don’t need to be spoon-fed information via a “nicer” system of pre-election events. Inherent in our democratic system is a voter veto. If voters don’t like the way someone campaigns, they won’t elect them. If a negative campaigner is elected, then the people have spoken, haven’t they?
In an editorial last week, the Star Tribune upheld the Minnesota Compact as a promising grass-roots approach to the election: “The Compact offers a set of standards for candidates as well as one for journalists, aimed at producing campaigns both more civil and more substantive.” Both of these aims are commendable, but who’s to say a civil campaign is more substantive?
Ever since the birth of First Amendment law in this country, political debate has been upheld as the most important form of speech. Former Supreme Court Justice Louis Brandeis emphasized that we must never stifle robust political debate, which is what our country is built on. To sugarcoat a campaign by making everybody be nice to one another shatters the foundation upon which our entire system stands. I would rather watch candidates nearly come to blows in a debate over issues than see them civilly converse with one another.
Let’s be careful not to stifle robust political debate in the name of civility. This proposal detracts from exactly what it claims to promote: an issue-oriented campaign. We should let the candidates get back to the issues and not bother them with 11th-hour plans like the Minnesota Compact. It’s time to put the Minnesota Nice approach to campaigning in its proper place: out of sight.

Michelle Kibiger’s column appears every Wednesday in the Daily.