Thursday, August 16, 2012

The Ugly Campaign

In 2000 and 2004, many Democratic activists complained bitterly that their flagship campaigns weren't tough enough. They wanted Gore and Kerry to go after Bush as a lying, lazy good ole boy, a chickenhawk, and an enabler of Wall Street crooks, for starters. But neither Gore nor Kerry had much interest in matching Rove's sleaze machine with sleaze of their own. They both lost, leaving many Democrats with a sense that their guys were right, but just weren't tough enough to win.

In 2008, Americans were so sick of Bush's economy and his Iraq war that all Obama had to do was obviously not be Bush -- not much of a challenge for a black man with a Kenyan name. He took a high tone, always respectful of McCain, and still walked away with the election. I, for one, liked the high tone.

But now that Obama is in a tough race we can all see that his high tone was a tactical choice. He and his team are proving themselves to be, as their enemies like to say, "Chicago pols," with sharp elbows and a nasty streak. As Dana Milbank put it,
the Democrats are no longer simply whining about the other side being reckless and unfair: They are being reckless and unfair themselves.
I hope all those Democrats who thought Kerry and Gore were weak are happy now.

I am not, but then I rarely am all that happy with politics. Politics in a democracy, or at least our democracy, is a rough game. Attack ads work -- just ask Newt Gingrich. They may only work at the margins, but America is so closely divided now between conservatives and the rest that ads only have to move 1 or 2 percent to deliver victory. Swing voters seem to be too distracted or ignorant to understand the real issues, and so they have to be reached with slogans, sound bites, and nasty slurs.

I recognize that 2008 was, for Democrats, a rare situation, when they could just coast to victory. I certainly am not going to vote for Romney because I think Obama's tactics are sleazy -- Romney is just as sleazy, after all, and even if he weren't I think issues like torture, war with Iran, and health care are more important than campaign tactics. But the ideological choice we face, between strengthening the welfare state and unwinding it, between a belligerent attitude toward the world and a peaceful one, is so important that I yearn for two candidates like Lincoln and Douglas who would put aside their personal interests and lay the issue before the public in the most honest way they can.

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