Hating Hillary Not Enough
Conservatives are fraught, angry at their traditional party, unable to decide on a standard-bearer, unsure even what they stand for. They don’t think this is the year to sort those problems out. They’re counting on a short-cut when the Democrats nominate an unelectable cold fish who has infuriated the Right for a decade and a half. Millions remember how they felt when she belittled other wives for “staying home and baking cookies,” and Bill Clinton promised voters “two for the price of one” if they sent his family to the White House.
On the Right, the list of grievances was even longer. Both Clintons were seen as ambassadors of 1960s radicalism and cultural decadence, and Hillary was the worse of the two: a pro-choice feminist who didn’t take her husband’s name until pollsters told her it would help him make a political comeback.
Yet for all of that outrage, Republicans lost that election to the Clintons. And the hope that voters will see what they see and reject what the Clintons stand for resembles the plan Democrats clung to in 2004. They choose John Kerry on the theory he would be the least controversial general-election candidate, then counted on an electorate fed up with George W. Bush to deliver the election.
While negative campaigning and pointing out the weaknesses of one’s opponent can be quite effective, there hasn’t been a presidential election in my lifetime decided on that basis. (Off the top of my head, I can’t think of an example of that happening, period.) Drawing a contrast with Hillary Clinton will be effective in mobilizing the base. But Republicans won’t keep the White House if they don’t inspire the public with a positive agenda of their own.
UPDATE: Kevin Drum disagrees with my conclusion, asking, “Is there any doubt that the Swift Boat ads that ran virtually nonstop in Ohio managed to switch at least a hundred thousand votes and thus swing the state — and the election — to George Bush?”
I do think there’s substantial doubt, yes. I’m honestly not sure how much the Swift Boat ads mattered in the long run, although they certainly weakened Kerry’s attempts to capitalize on his Vietnam service. And to the extent that they were effective, I continue to believe it was the legitimate attacks on his post-Vietnam activism, including the Winter Soldier smears, that hurt rather than the nonsense about Kerry’s faking injuries to get his Purple Heart and so forth.
Indeed, I’d cite the 2004 campaign as a classic case of what I’m talking about here. The Kerry campaign was built almost entirely on attacking the Bush presidency rather than presenting an alternative vision. Given the unpopularity of the war, he came close but not quite close enough.
Could Kerry have run that campaign and won were it not for the Swift Boat ads? Maybe. But he could more easily have picked up another hundred thousand-odd votes in Ohio by giving the people something to vote for rather than just highlighting what they should vote against.