Why The Campaign is So Negative
David Broder gets both candidates to agree that the campaign has gotten more bitter than they’d like and is intigued by John McCain’s suggestion, “I think we could have avoided at least some of this if we had agreed to do the town hall meetings.” The early blogospheric response to this has come mostly from Obama supporters who, not surprisingly, think this is a bizarre fantasy and believe the negativity is almost entirely of McCain’s making.
- Kevin Drum: “In the gamma quadrant, maybe so, but back here at home I’d take a guess that McCain’s hiring of Steve Schmidt had a wee bit more to do with it.”
- John Cole: “You can believe that if you want, just like you can believe the blame for the negative tone of the campaign is shared equally by Obama and McCain, as Broder certainly does. But then, of course, you would probably have to be as foolish as Broder.”
- Creature: “The only thing David Broder accomplishes with his column today is to reveal his bias toward McCain.”
- Shaun Mullen: “Even though McCain reacted negatively to Obama’s counteroffer of two town hall debates and decided there would be none, it is solely Obama’s fault because he did not accept all five. And, as a result of there being no town hall debates, the candidates couldn’t stand on the same stage and become fine friends.”
- Steve Benen: “It’s a classic non sequitur — whether McCain runs a relentlessly negative, substance-free campaign has nothing to do with his proposal for extra debates.”
While Obama has certainly engaged in negative campaigning against McCain, I agree with the above commentators that McCain has run a mostly negative campaign in recent weeks and that Broder’s assumption of equivalence is odd. Then again, I happen to agree with Dean Barnett, who questions the premise:
What’s most bothersome about such articles aside from their sheer tedium is how spectacularly mistaken they are. American politics ain’t beanbag, and they never have been. Andrew Jackson’s wife was hounded to her death by his political opponents pushing stories about her being a bigamist. (Lucky for them Old Hickory wasn’t the vengeful type.) The 19th century also produced the memorable high-road slogan, “Ma, Ma, Where’s My Pa? Gone to the White House Ha-ha-ha.” As Broder was probably around for that campaign, it’s surprising he’s forgotten it.
Since every American presidential campaign has been a negative low-road affair, one might ask if there’s a systemic reason why this is so. And guess what? There is! Politics is one of life’s very rare zero sum games; each vote your opponent gets is one that you won’t. You’re in direct competition with your opponent, and the competition is fierce.
Since securing the nomination, this has been, and remains, Obama’s election to lose. He’s young, charismatic, exciting, and new and the public seems genuinely desperate to break away from the politics of the past few years. McCain’s only hope to win is to persuade the public that Obama’s not who he pretends to be and that we need a man of his seasoning during a dangerous time.
While I think the linkage is dramatically oversold, McCain’s probably right that, had the two men been forced to stand side-by-side in a series of freewheeling debates in front of a live audience, the dynamic of the campaign would be different. The argument isn’t that the two men would have become best buds, going out for beers and the occasional ball game afterward, but that it’s simply easier to be negative in television spots than in person. Yes, he could have done both. But it’s harder to do that if you’ll soon have to defend your spots to the other guy’s face.
Beyond that, townhall meetings have been McCain’s strength in both his presidential campaigns. That format would have given him a chance to shift the dynamic of the contest. (I happen to still believe, as I did when the idea was suggested, that Obama would have likewise excelled in the format. My parallel prediction that, the “Obama-McCain fall matchup will be relatively issue oriented compared to recent contests,” has sadly proved mistaken.) Absent that, and especially in light of Obama’s rock star reception on his overseas trip, negative television spots were McCain’s best shot.
The reason candidates, especially trailing candidates, have run negative campaigns over all these years is simple: They work. They raise doubts about the opponent with relatively little damage to one’s own image. And it’s much easier to run an attack in 30 seconds than to respond to it. Conversely, a 30 second spot that’s all hope and sunshine barely moves the dials.
Photo credit: ABC News