Last September, when the presidential race was close, Barack Obama tried to quell a flap in the news media over what he had intended as a routine jibe. “You can put lipstick on a pig,” Obama had said of the claim that picking Sarah Palin as his running mate showed John McCain to be a reformer. “It’s still a pig.”
Barraged with accusations of sexism, Obama eventually took time out at a campaign stop to address the swelling controversy.“They seize on an innocent remark,” he fulminated, in apparent bewilderment, “try to take it out of context, throw out an outrageous ad because they know it’s catnip for the news media.”
“Fairy tale” … “Dr. King’s dream began to be realized when President Lyndon Johnson passed the Civil Rights Act of 1964”. …“People are caught up in the concept”
Obama’s partisans, who had lately been lamenting what seemed like his Michael Dukakis-like diffidence, now exulted in this gust of straight talk.
Yet observers who lacked an intense belief in Obama’s moral superiority—even if they were partial to him all the same—could be forgiven for marveling not at his straight talk but at his straight face.
Hadn’t the primary season teemed with this kind of feigned umbrage? Hadn’t his own campaign fomented a useful passion among his foot soldiers by fanning similar controversies?
“No. No. There is nothing to base that on as far as I know.” …“working, hard-working Americans, white Americans” …“Bobby Kennedy was assassinated in June in California.”
Hadn’t he seized on comments such as Hillary Clinton’s praise of Lyndon Johnson to the supposed detriment of Martin Luther King, Jr., as racist or John McCain’s commitment to keep troops in Iraq as evidence of unrestrained warmongering?
Although these flaps from the campaign trail now seem distant and frivolous, they frequently turned last year’s primary and general elections into miniature referenda about who wronged whom. These referenda Obama almost always won. And although other factors, especially the tanking economy, obviously contributed more directly to his November victory, it would be a mistake to overlook the importance of his skill at mastering the politics of negative attacks. When Obama went negative against others, he carefully singled out aspects of his opponents’ characters that, he argued, American politics itself had to transcend; he associated his foes with the worst of the old politics and himself with the best of the new. When others fired at him, in contrast, he was almost always able to turn the criticisms back upon them and portray them—through feigned outrage, among other tactics—as perpetuating those selfsame blights on our politics.
The widespread obsession with “negativity” that came to a head in 2008 expressed long-brewing concerns about the place of partisanship, conflict, and civility in our political life. For at least two decades, journalists, scholars, political consultants, and the public have grown increasingly fretful about the tenor of politics, with “negative campaigning” serving as a focus for these anxieties. A raft of books on the subject the last decade or so has offered dueling theories about the effects of such negativity in politics. And although these books vary too much in approach and definition to yield hard-and-fast generalizations, the overall surge of interest in negativity does signal an unmistakable popular frustration with the practice of politics today. But what, precisely, does all this interest in negative campaigning mean? The 2008 campaign is as good a place as any to start.
Political consultants often say that despite the bad press it brings, negative campaigning works. For Hillary Clinton in 2008, however, the opposite proved true: when she went after Obama—first in late December 2007 and then, more aggressively, after her slender New Hampshire primary win—the bad press she got outweighed whatever damage she inflicted on her rival. To be sure, her options at that point were few: playing nice after Obama’s victory in Iowa probably would have allowed him to coast to the nomination. But taking him on as directly as she did alienated not just the news media but a huge portion of voters, influential elites, and superdelegates. That she seemed to revel in the combat only made things worse. Clinton was roundly jeered when, after taking a pummeling for a month, she declared in doffing her kid gloves, “Now the fun part starts.” And her timing couldn’t have been worse. Just as the loyalties of the Democratic electorate were hardening, an image took hold of her as the nastier of the two contenders, while Obama shored up his image as the breath of fresh air that (he argued) the country longed for.
The decisive blow to Clinton came early, in mid-January, when she lost the spin wars over which side was playing the “race card.” Immediately before the New Hampshire primary, when black voters were reassessing their loyalties to her, Obama’s people became convinced that the Clintons were race-baiting. Some took umbrage when Bill called the press’s emerging Cinderella narrative about Obama a “fairy tale” and when Hillary suggested that Lyndon Johnson was as indispensable to progress in civil rights as Martin Luther King, Jr. (Bill’s dismissive comparison of Obama’s South Carolina victory to Jesse Jackson’s 1988 victory, though also provocative, was less consequential, coming later, after most black voters had already flocked to Obama.)
Where Obama’s backers saw racism, Clinton’s saw manufactured outrage—a brazen bid to pry black voters and superdelegates away from her camp. After New Hampshire, Jesse Jackson, Jr., urged voters to keep in mind “as we head to South Carolina where 45 percent of African-Americans will participate in the Democratic contest” that Hillary cried about her own political fortunes but not about Hurricane Katrina. Amaya Smith of Obama’s South Carolina office distributed a memo listing comments by various Clintonites (“You can’t shuck and jive at a press conference”—Andrew Cuomo) that could be construed as racist. Even Obama himself, who had quickly absolved Joe Biden of racist intent following his “articulate and bright and clean” gaffe, let the charges of racism against Hillary hang in the air, calling her words about LBJ and King “unfortunate” and “ill-advised.” To Clinton supporters, these incidents seemed like a strategy to paint her as bigoted.
Until time brings more historical distance—and unless documents or candid confessions from the key players emerge—the participants’ motives will remain consigned to a Rashomon-like state of indeterminacy. But whatever their intentions, the result was that Obama emerged from it all widely seen as victimized, Clinton as the victimizer. Her ability to go negative effectively was curtailed. Any criticisms of Obama thereafter fed a narrative that she was, as Obama’s adviser David Axelrod said, “willing to do anything to win.” To be sure, as Clinton’s unexpected strength in the later primaries attested, not every Democrat accepted this view, nor did Obama himself, as his post-election choice of her as his secretary of state showed. Yet in the short term the desired effect—of boosting Clinton’s negatives for her sin of going negative—was achieved.
Similarly, in the general election, Obama while largely avoiding blowback for his own negativity, raised unfavorable perceptions of John McCain for his sallies against Obama. In truth, McCain’s slaps at Obama were mild. He ridiculed Obama’s more grandiose gestures and threw around some hoary Republican cant about the Democrats being elitists. As his position worsened, his shots grew uglier—exaggerating Obama’s links to the domestic terrorist Bill Ayers and the Palestinian-American scholar Rashid Khalidi and hysterically describing Obama’s redistributive economics as “socialism.” Yet even those statements hardly amounted to a historic low in sleaze, as many journalists, caught up in the campaign, alleged. Indeed, almost every historian who has explored the rich tradition of campaign-trail mudslinging and slander (including Dissent’s Nicolaus Mills in 2001) has concluded that our own times have nothing on the bile-filled nineteenth century. Even the twentieth century boasts a dozen or so races manifestly uglier than last year’s, from the Republicans’ anti-Catholic slurs against Al Smith in 1928 to George H.W. Bush’s use of the Pledge of Allegiance and prison furlough issues against Michael Dukakis in 1988 to—how soon they forget—the Swift-boating of John Kerry in 2004. And yet the claim that McCain was descending to historic lows of ugliness gained widespread currency in the campaign’s final weeks. Flailing about without a remedy to the economic crisis, McCain came to be seen as offering nothing but negativity.
Yet what’s striking about the 2008 race is the lengths to which the candidates went to ensure that inviolable lines weren’t crossed. McCain faced down bigoted hecklers at rallies and fired low-level staffers who trafficked in the subterranean rumors that Obama was a Muslim. Clinton sacked Bill Shaheen, a top New Hampshire aide who asked whether Obama’s admitted drug use would expose him to Republican assaults. Obama, too, paid respect to the norms of civility, dropping his adviser Samantha Power when, during the heat of the campaign, she vented to a journalist (reasonably thinking she was off the record) that Clinton was a “monster.” All parties took concrete steps to uphold the norms of civility, or at least to pay them lip service.
A review of the campaign also discloses numerous instances of the candidates gushing extravagantly about their rivals. Clinton and Obama declared themselves honored to share a stage with each other; both hailed McCain as a hero; both McCain and Obama hailed Clinton’s path-breaking achievements as a female presidential contender. Though arguably insincere, these comments were no more self-evidently so than the much-maligned outbreaks of campaign-trail trash talk. More important, that candidates felt obliged to praise their competitors so strongly again attests to the importance we place on civility as a positive good in our politics.
Indeed, in recent decades Americans have made something of a fetish of our distaste for negative campaigning. As the political scientist John T. Geer has written in his perceptive book In Defense of Negativity, negative campaign ads drew relatively little notice as a phenomenon before the 1988 presidential contest between the elder Bush and Dukakis. Starting that year, journalists began to comment about them more, as did the candidates themselves. Dukakis cut ads blasting Bush for “dragging the truth into the gutter”—a negative charge about a negative charge. Reporters wrote about and against negativity. Pollsters added questions about it to their surveys. Scholarly interest spiked. The nastiness of the 1988 campaign alone can’t explain this surge of attention, since other rough contests hadn’t provoked similar fretting. Geer argues that what was new was the journalists’ interest in the horse race and backstage mechanics of campaigning, so that negativity now simply seemed more important than it used to. One might add to these changes broader cultural shifts, specifically the rise of “gotcha” journalism and a morality of “zero tolerance” in politics, which made reporters, campaign operatives, and news junkies more attuned than ever to any infraction that might generate a story.
Today’s political climate, then, fetishizes negativity. So, too, do particular kinds of voters. In the main, these voters are the inheritors of the nineteenth-century Mugwumps and early-twentieth-century Progressives, the reformers who frowned upon and sought to purify the rough-and-tumble machine politics of their day. Predominantly middle class and professional, they and their intellectual legatees moved among different political homes over the decades, ending up mostly in the liberal wing of the Democratic Party or as Independents. In 2008, they constituted Obama’s electoral base.
These voters, and the many journalists who share their worldview, were drawn to Obama in large part because of the themes of his campaign. His abiding keyword, “change,” meant, in policy terms, economic renewal, an end to the Iraq War, and a break from Republican conservatism in general. But it also contained larger, bolder promises (which, unlike the new policies, Hillary Clinton could not offer as persuasively), including generational turnover, racial healing, and a non- (or “post- ”) partisan, good-government reformism. The liberals drawn to this promise of a new politics were inherently more disturbed by negative campaigning, since they were less inclined in the first place to accept the view of politics as an arena of rough competition. They thus became acutely sensitive to any barbs directed Obama’s way and quite ready to view rivals like Clinton and McCain as ruthless.
Obama had little trouble painting Clinton as an embodiment of the old politics of negativity and opportunism from which he was offering change. But he had a harder time, initially, with McCain, who started out with a reputation—inflated though it was—for rectitude. For much of the summer, Obama’s efforts to insinuate that McCain was hitting below the belt backfired. At one point the Democrats referred obliquely to the Islamophobic crackpots who were circulating conspiratorial rumors about him and implied that McCain’s campaign was complicit with their hate-mongering. “What they’re going to try to do is make you scared of me,” Obama said to a crowd in July. “You know, he’s not patriotic enough, he’s got a funny name, you know, he doesn’t look like all those other presidents on the dollar bills.” But McCain and his aides beat back those insinuations, noting correctly that Obama’s camp was trying “to delegitimize any line of attack against him,” in one aide’s words. For a time this blunt strategy held Obama at bay.
When McCain plummeted in the polls, however, due to his garbled and dim response to the mid-September financial crisis, everything changed. Hitting Obama harder to retain wavering voters, McCain fell into a downward spiral. Striving to fulfill the running mate’s traditional pit bull role, Sarah Palin—already a subject of suspicion and derision in the media—served up a series of comically absurd barbs, like the notion that Obama was “palling around” with Bill Ayers. In a time of crisis, all of this seemed spectacularly irrelevant. Voters said they wanted to hear concrete proposals about fixing the economy, and while Obama was now stressing relief for the middle-class, McCain was sputtering. It was for this reason that the charges of unconscionably dirty campaigning gained traction—not because John McCain had suddenly become Joe McCarthy.
Obama’s strategy was not without risk. His lofty appeals to our better angels meant that he had to be seen as staying above the fray. But given his high-minded image and cool style, he also had to skirt the trap that had doomed so many previous liberal White House aspirants: a hesitancy toward combat that might connote fecklessness. On more than one occasion, he almost fell off this tightrope. When he trailed Clinton in the polls in October 2007, for example, his supporters (many of whom later assailed the negative tone of the campaign) pleaded with him to take some shots at her, to prove that he had the mettle to win. The following summer, when his lead over McCain was shrinking, they again implored him not to become another Kerry or Dukakis and to bash McCain harder (again, notwithstanding their subsequent outrage at McCain’s attacks). In both cases Obama followed the advice to go negative—endangering his image as something different. But he shrewdly homed in on his opponents’ partisanship, cynicism, ruthlessness, and negativity—precisely the qualities that he said were corroding politics overall. Conflating his own success with an end to the ugliness of our politics, he rendered his rivals’ jabs at him as more proof of the urgency of his own candidacy.
Apart from this brilliant maneuver, the other factor that framed the negative campaigning of 2008 was race. This was not, it must be said, an issue of “white guilt”—a noxious and misleading term, which implies that concern with redressing racial disparities is somehow neurotic in nature and illegitimate. It was, rather, a reflection of Obama’s status as the first truly viable African American presidential candidate. That status led many influential liberals, in the media and otherwise, to be, quite rightly, hyperalert to rhetoric that might contain a whiff of racism, lest it taint or derail a potentially historic breakthrough.
While born of noble intentions, this skittishness about race had distorting effects. It led all manner of criticisms of Obama to be read through a racial lens. In a New York Times op-ed piece, Harvard sociologist Orlando Patterson saw in Clinton’s controversial “3 a.m.” ad—featuring a child safe in bed when a foreign crisis erupts—an effort to prey on white fears of blacks. When McCain ran an ad lightly mocking Obama’s celebrity, some bloggers insisted that the comparisons to Britney Spears and Paris Hilton were meant to excite fears of miscegenation. These discoveries of hidden racism were not necessarily made in bad faith. Many appear to have been sincere—coming from observers who, while partial to Obama, were also primed by centuries of history, including a host of notorious race-baiting ads in recent elections, to expect such coded appeals. In any case, the delicate nature of discussions of race made almost everyone flinch a bit more at negativity when it was aimed at Obama, because one never knew when a racist appeal buried in the attack might erupt.
Obama took advantage of that diciness by braiding together his promise of transcending the old politics of negativity, cynicism, and partisanship with his promise of transcending racism. Though usually left unspoken, the subtext of his talk of uniting red with blue was always the idea of uniting black with white. But on whatever level one read his rhetoric, he became a vessel for precious hopes. His candidacy summoned forth a unique emotional investment in protecting that vessel and a vigilance against anything that might shatter it. Such protectiveness led back to the non-partisan space from which Obama was conducting his campaign.
What this analysis suggests is that the widespread profession of distaste for negativity was a rationalization as much as a reason for Obama’s success—that while we talk as if negativity is what we dislike in our politics, we’re actually partaking of a bit of willful self-delusion. For in truth, whether we acknowledge it or not, we depend on negativity to gain valuable information and refine our thinking about political candidates. At some level we understand—but because it violates our best notions of ourselves, we don’t like to admit—that for a candidate to single out an adversary’s deficiencies actually has benefits for the public.
The logic is simple. Politicians don’t usually volunteer their own true weaknesses before the citizenry. We need competition to bring them forth. When several rivals raise disagreeable facts about one another or when they simply challenge each other’s self-presentations, voters learn more about all of them. Even those vilified vehicles of negativity, television spots, inform; because most voters won’t sit through longer, more informative sources, the irksome thirty- or sixty-second spots turn out to be an efficient way to convey some basic information. Negative campaigning, then, elevates issues that would otherwise remain submerged. Without it, our elections would be as vacuous as the balloting for president of a student council or a professional organization.
If we overlook the benefits we get from negative campaigning, we also tend to overstate the deleterious effects. Indeed, it’s not clear what’s really so objectionable about criticizing an opponent, even sharply. Rough tactics have always been part of the game. Conflict is endemic to democratic politics, and it necessarily entails negativity.
It’s true, of course, that negative ads are often superficial and misleading. But so too, according to much political science research, are most “positive” ads (those in which candidates talk only about themselves). It’s reasonable to think that a surfeit of innuendo, invective, and incivility will pollute our public discourse or repel voters. But the political hurly-burly can also elicit a guilty pleasure and excite our interest, as 2008 showed. And everyone can agree in theory that politicians shouldn’t cross certain lines of fair play or good taste; we can all cite deplorable instances—such as the Republicans’ slanders in 2002 against Georgia Senator Max Cleland, a war hero—that we believe went beyond the pale. Yet in practice, finding agreement on clear lines between fair and foul is nearly impossible, since judgments differ radically depending on whose ox is gored. Again, the selective outrage on all sides during last year’s campaign underscores this truth.
Universally decried though it may be, then, negativity appears not to be the real source of our discontent. Our outrage is too selective, the benefits we derive from the campaign-trail fisticuffs too significant, the ostensible problems with negative ads too flimsy for such a claim to hold up. And yet the notion that negative campaigning represents one of the main maladies of our politics is, outside the province of some political scientists and politicians, so universally accepted as to be uncontroversial. Why?
The answer, I think, is that we live in an age that is haunted by an idealized notion of the political sphere, located somewhere in the irretrievable past. While at some level we know that verbal jousting is part and parcel of politics, most of us also yearn to create a political realm that is more civil and free of conflict. Deploring negativity lets us maintain a space for an ideal in the arena of the real. It allows us to preserve a picture of politics as a realm of civility—exactly in the same way as did Obama’s presidential candidacy.
As his presidency dawns, questions arise. Can Obama carry his image of decency and his skill at delegitimizing his opponents’ criticisms to the White House? Will they serve him as well in governing as they did in campaigning?
There is some reason for optimism. Since at least the Nixon presidency, governing has increasingly made use of the tools of campaigning. Presidents regularly commission and study polls about which issues to pursue and how. Aides develop complex strategies for achieving legislative and other policy goals, paying heed to the roles of the media and public opinion. And though Obama is unproven when it comes to policy making, he has shown himself to be skilled in winning those battles in the public realm. Despite his promise of a new politics, he is most skilled at playing precisely the kind of fine-grained politics of public opinion that has evolved over the last couple of generations.
He is also lucky to face a Republican opposition that is fractured, aimless, and diminished in number. He benefits, too, from the current economic crisis, in which most Americans feel an urgent need for swift and aggressive action to stimulate commercial activity, buttress our financial institutions, and stanch the spreading hardship. If Republicans resist too obstreperously, it shouldn’t be hard for Obama to portray them as placing selfish gains ahead of the common good. His talent for high-flown oratory and his fondness for appeals to bipartisan cooperation augur well here too.
On the other hand, Obama has never led as an executive. For the first time, he has to devise policies that are not just marketable but also effective. In a campaign, a candidate can propose ideas that he can, once elected, disavow. He can avoid talking about details if they are politically dangerous. And if his policy ideas prove less than inspiring, he can fall back on his personal qualities. A president can’t do those things nearly so easily. Although charisma always helps, what’s at stake is no longer the individual candidate’s fate but rather that of the president’s agenda.
Obama therefore can no longer avail himself so directly of the personal investment that many people made in him during the campaign. In the campaign, the candidate becomes all: people want him, the person, to win. In governing, people still may root for a president they like, but they will judge him by what he does. Obama will be harder pressed to equate his own success with the transcendence of politics-as-usual. Change no longer resides in the vague hope that one man’s election can deliver the nation to a new and better place; it now has to be instantiated by specific policy planks, to be debated on their merits and seen through familiar ideological frameworks.
And there is the specific aspect of Obama’s historic achievement as the first black president. The desire to see an African American president was, as noted, a factor in the protectiveness that many people felt toward Obama when he came under fire last year. But if the Republicans try to kill his spending bill or his health care initiatives, it won’t be possible for the president’s supporters to discern a racial dimension to criticisms, at least not one that is widely credited as plausible. The real post-racial moment begins now.
Meanwhile, the Republicans, though weakened, aren’t rolling over. Obama can try to make them look petty through appeals to a common good, and he will sometimes succeed. But sooner or later, on certain issues, clear lines of debate will take shape. Obama will then have to step out from behind the postpartisan shield to speak as a liberal and a Democrat. If the Republicans, in this hour of emergency, resolve to block new and needed legislation, Obama will find the reinforcements he needs only by arriving at a surefooted position of conviction. He will have to rally his ideological base, marshal his partisan loyalists, and argue from a sense of principle. That will require many things, not least moving beyond the politics of feigned outrage.
David Greenberg, a professor of history and of journalism & media studies at Rutgers University, is a columnist for Slate and the author of Nixon’s Shadow: The History of an Image, among other books.