Friday, August 08, 2008

mccain, obama, and "negative" campaigning

There has been a predictable criticism of the McCain campaign for indulging in "negative" campaign tactics . . . and an equally predictable use of the same tactics by Obama supporters. What exactly is going on here, and who if anyone is to blame?

Negative campaigning is a little bit like fantasizing about other people's spouses: everyone says it's a bad idea but everyone does it, anyway. The inevitability flows from two related principles. First, emotions are as a general rule stronger than intellect, especially in the political field. (I was told this when I first got interested in politics, but didn't believe it, which is probably why I'm still a blogger.) Second, negative emotions are, with a few obvious exceptions, typically stronger than positive ones. People root for Batman, but the Joker gets all the awards.

I have always believed that the dividing line should not be positive and negative, which are in any event two sides of the same coin, but substantial and insubstantial. Attacks on Obama for (say) bumping fists or sounding like Paris Hilton are in the latter category and--although they are not necessarily illegitimate--are unlikely to decide the campaign on their own.

By contrast, attacks on Obama for his Iraq and energy politics are both appropriate and substantive in nature. The allegation is in both cases the same one: that the Democratic Party has a habit of ignoring substantive evidence which contradicts its deeply held beliefs and prejudices. Thus, the Party and its candidate appear to be suggesting that the surge has failed even though almost all neutral observers agree that it succeeded, and to be arguing that new drilling--the supply side of the energy equation--should be foresworn because it is unappealing for environmental (i.e., ideological) reasons. Neither of these makes much sense, and both of them have hurt Obama in the recent polling. Efforts to massage the facts--the surge was only partially successful, new drilling will take several years to hit the pumps--only make the evasion more obvious.

The objection to this strategy is particularly odd, since the Democrats' own principal allegation--that Republicans have ignored health, housing, and other crises that did not sit well with their own conservative philosophy--is essentially an opposite version of the same charge. This charge, like McCain's, has more than a little truth in it, and is a perfectly relevant argument on the campaign trail. In any event, the issue should be resolved not by the expert's rating of campaign technique, but by which side's arguments are more convincing, or (what amounts to the same thing) whose evasions are perceived as less dangerous: in short, the same way that all elections are resolved, and probably about how they should be.


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