Wednesday, January 23, 2008I admit it - I find negative politics sort of entertaining. I think there's an art form to the good slam, in the same way that you like to light up your buddies over a beer: you're always really "kidding on the square," and it's particularly delicious when you actually don't like your "buddy." In politics, it's easy (and emotionally satisfying) to attack your opponent, to reduce their career to shivering pieces for having the audacity to challenge your preferred candidate. It's not the most admirable part of the human personality, but there it is.
(BTW if I were running a campaign against me, I would have a field day with the above paragraph. Which perhaps is a very good reason for me to never run for anything).
BUT, there's a not-so-fine line between going on the offensive against an opponent and just being a creep. Which is where Paul Waldman's latest piece in the American Prospect comes in. Waldman accurately points to a long-running desire among Democrats for "our own Karl Rove" - someone who will do to Republicans what they've been doing to us. Now I've always rejected these calls, because a) I don't Rove is that smart (whatever happened to that Permanent Republican Majority anyway?) and b) we don't have to lie like they do. I mean, if my opponent is a crook, why would I have to make it up?
Waldman suggests that Hillary Clinton's campaign is precisely what the aforementioned frustrated Democrats have been looking for: Clinton has misrepresented a number of things about Obama, and pushed memes that have only a slight association to the truth. To be fair, Obama's folks have occasionally done similar things. But Clinton's people have clearly been much more effective at it, and if what you want is a "fighter," then maybe Clinton is what you're looking for. However, notes Waldman, a lot of liberals have been left with a bad taste after watching a few weeks of these sorts of shenanigans. We are supposed to be the good guys, aren't we?
I think Waldman is making a pretty serious error here. He's assuming that tough negative attacks are inherently slimy, and therefore anyone engaging in them is going to become covered with said unappetizing substance. But I don't think this is necessarily the case, as long as the attacks are fair. It would be very easy to lay out a case against Obama on the grounds that he lacks substance, experience, or any obvious examples of leadership in the Senate. All of these accusations are contestable, but all of them also have an element of truth - in the same way that Hillary Clinton is an incrementalist and a hawk, or that Edwards' positions today are very different from his record in the Senate. Fighting a primary campaign on those grounds would give the voters the option of making their decision based on the real characteristics of the candidates - rather than the freakish caricatures we see now.
Which is what makes me so discouraged about the current state of the Democratic primary campaign. Rather than crafting an aggressive form of politics that highlights the real distinctions between candidates - a skill we will desperately need in the general election and while governing - our candidates have been indulging in the lowest, most pointless, stupidest form of electioneering policy: mud-slinging without merit. Moral considerations aside, tell me, how in the world can we expect to out-dirty the Republicans? How is cultivating cynicism or bringing politics into disrepute going to help the cause of reform?
So fight the war, by all means. Just don't cheat.