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Into the breach




 

 

“I want to run a strong, positive campaign,” Michael Dukakis told me over and over again 20 years ago. “People hate negative campaigns,” he said, more times than I cared to count or remember. He was half right. People don’t like negative campaigns. They’ll tell you that till they’re blue in the face, in between asking you if he really did let a murderer go free, or fake his injuries, or let his men down.

Which ad does everyone remember from last time around? How do you spell Swift Boat? Is it because it was the smartest, best produced and most accurate? How about none of the above? Is it because they reported on it endlessly, the candidate tried and failed to ignore it, and it ended up defining his character? Negative campaigns may be disgusting, unethical and, usually, inaccurate, but people remember them. The press covers them. They get attention. And the folks who shrink from them get smaller in the process, not bigger. President Dukakis? Not. President Kerry? Not.

I’m not saying this is always true. Maybe you can find some examples of decent and honorable people who ran decent and honorable campaigns, never resorting to the negative, and won. For state legislature, anyway. Congress, occasionally. But president? Get serious. Did George W. Bush run a positive campaign against John McCain in 2000? He did not. Did the older George Bush run a positive campaign against Bob Dole in 1988? He did not. Did Bill Clinton run positive campaigns? With Dick Morris calling the shots? He did not.

The closest any successful candidate I can remember has come to running a positive campaign would have to be Ronald Reagan’s campaign against Jimmy Carter in 1980. But that was a special case because people already hated Carter so much that Reagan didn’t have to convince them to vote against him. The only question was whether a guy who thought trees caused pollution and who regularly made up stories about welfare mothers who didn’t exist could be trusted to be president. Affirmative, in a landslide. All Reagan had to say was, “There you go again,” and people were willing to turn Carter’s attacks against him. If George Bush were running for re-election, his opponent could afford to be positive. No one else in this race enjoys that luxury.

It’s usually January before the candidates start to wake up and realize the witching hour is upon them. But everything’s at least a month early this year, so Merry Christmas, and let’s start throwing mud. Heard about Huckabee’s high taxes? You will. Barack’s Senate record – and I mean state senate? Get ready.

Consider what’s happened in the last month. Has Barack Obama articulated a new vision for America? No. Has Hillary made critical mistakes? No. She had one middling debate, followed by one very good one. Obama had one very good debate, followed by one middling one. But something significant has happened, that’s for sure. He’s now leading in Iowa, albeit within the margin of error. The race is tightening in New Hampshire. Karl Rove is giving him pointers. (Watch out! The former presidential adviser used to have power. Now he has space to fill. Caveat emptor.)

What’s happened is a change in temperature, in atmosphere, in sensibility. Obama is on the attack. It doesn’t matter about what. I can’t, to be honest, tell you exactly which attacks of his have helped him pull ahead. Sadly, the issue is not the issue.

I learned that early on, as an issues person in my first campaign, when I realized that no one read any of the white papers I wrote. Bullet points on the cover, preferably with the attack lines underlined, were all that was necessary. I could have stapled together an excerpt from the telephone directory and gotten credit for a comprehensive issue paper, so long as it was wrapped in red meat.

Obama has been rewarded for stepping up. Now, Hillary has to hit back. Can anyone remember exactly what the fight is about? Is it really about who planted questions, whether the Iranians are actually bad guys, who gave money to Obama’s PAC, or how he voted in the state legislature?

No. It’s a fight. That’s the point. Come on in. The water’s freezing. The mud’s flying. Merry Christmas. It’s going to be an ugly one.

©2007 Creators Syndicate Inc.

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