The Dartmouth Observer

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Tuesday, March 18, 2008
The Strategic Politics of Negative Campaigning

Clearly, I am going to have to say something about Sen. Obama's "major speech" on race today. As a black independent who is supporting Sen. Clinton, but also recognizes the important of a black presidential nominee, I'm sure I'll have something to say a little later. I think it's important to think about the way in which racial politics and discourses frame how people understand disparity, agency, and identity in modern America.

My initial reaction is that Obama has correctly used his speech-making gifts to try and tone down the race-related rhetoric, and, if reports are to be believed, will join the move Sen. Clinton made yesterday in talking about the other issues in the campaign (Iraq, the economy, etc) in an effort to change the subject. What the speech does not accomplish, laudable though it is, is the fact that Sen. Obama, who based his campaign on "superior judgment" as a substitute if not superior trade for 'experience', has made numerous egregious and rookie political mistakes. (1) Two principles advisers playing wink-wink with the foreign press on two critical issues (NAFTA and Iraq War), (2) Susan Rice admits that Obama is unprepared to be commander-in-chief (although accused Sen. Clinton of the same thing), (3) Obama's ties to, and changing non-disclosures about, the Chicago-based Rev. Wright and Tony Rezko, and (4) receiving a sub-committee chairmanship that has oversight over NATO and (exercising his judgment by) choosing to do nothing, and learning little, about the other war going on: the war in Afghanistan.

Fortunately, on the daily conference calls that each political team has with reporters, the Clinton campaign has not touched or raised the the Wright-Obama issue. A lot of people believe--due the negative attacks started by Sen. Obama (with Republican and conservative help) early last year and perfected by Sen. Edwards in November and December--that Sen. Clinton and her team will "do or say anything" to get elected, a charge that is obviously unfair. (Her candidacy has to end for anyone else's, either McCain or Obama's, to begin. If she wins, she's almost unstoppable.) Her team's action--unlike those of the right-wing pundits--to not push this issue I think are a clear testament of her integrity as a candidate and history as a progressive reformer.

And although, as I am finding out through some back reading, Obama specializes in strategic character assassination--making the other guy unelectable while organizing the elements that are opposed to the more established candidates under the rhetoric of change, younger generations, and new politics--as a way of encouraging implosions within establishment candidacies, Sen. Clinton's team taking the high road these past few weeks are points in her favor. In this particular case, trying to paint the Clintons in general, and Sen. Clinton in particular, as a racist is one of the ultimate knock-out moves in a Democratic primary.

The negative campaigning, by former Sen. Edwards and Sen. Obama, relative to the recent negative campaigning of Sen. Clinton has become the subject of controversy. Igniting new appeals after her March 5 primary victories in Ohio, Rhode Island, and Texas to leave the race because she is damaging the prospects of the Democrats to win in November, many pundits are suggesting that Clinton campaign is handing McCain talking points.

David Epstein has offered some very interesting observations about negative campaigning in primaries and caucuses:

Take a primary campaign in which one candidate is more extremist relative to the national distribution of voters (e.g., Obama), and the other more moderate (e.g., Clinton). Then negative attacks by the more extremist candidate are less damaging to the party in the national election than negative attacks by the moderate.

Why? Because the attacks by the extremist (taking the Obama-Clinton example) are of the form "Your positions are too far right." So Obama says that Clinton is too hawkish on the war. This is an attack that makes sense in a Democratic primary, but it's certainly not one that McCain will repeat in the general election; if anything, it helps her in November.

But Hillary attacks Obama by saying that he's too dovish, not experienced enough for the tough foreign policy challenges that he would face as president (this is the real message of the 3AM telephone call ad). This is an attack that McCain would certainly repeat and that damages Obama as a general election candidate.

I note this asymmetry not to make value judgments, but just because it's interesting and I hadn't heard it mentioned before. It does clarify a few elements of the current situation, though. To start with, it helps remind us that in a way Obama has been running a negative campaign from the very beginning, saying that Clinton was wrong on Iraq and he was right. In fact, I see his entire policy strategy as copying Clinton on every other major issue, so that these are a draw, and winning on Iraq. (There's also the old politics vs. Yes We Can dimension, but let's not go there now.) Obama hasn't received much flack for these attacks, partly because they bolster Hillary's image as a hawk, which she will certainly want to project in the national election once she's the nominee.

On the other hand, Hillary has to walk a finer line when she attacks Obama, because she's making many of the same points that any Republican opponent would. So she gets accused of disregarding the party's overall interests, sometimes fairly (she absolutely should not be saying that McCain is a better leader than Obama; that's heresy), sometimes not. But the rules are different for her, to some degree because she's Hillary and a Clinton, and to some degree because of the geometry of the situation.

Anyway, these are my early thoughts.