Thursday, February 7, 2008
Why is it such a bad year for going negative?
One of the most cheering things about the 2008 election is what isn't working.
Money: Of course, money still matters too much in US politics. But Mitt's millions couldn't get him the nomination, and he was outplayed by Mike Huckabee largely volunteer force. On the Democrat side, money has mattered and Obama's fundraising success during 2007 was an early signal that his could be a viable challenge to Hillary Clinton. But there is now a twist. Until the last few weeks, the Clinton campaign strategy was based around a decisive Super Tuesday result, reflected in the fundraising and spending plans. Now, the game is in overtime. That means a big headache for the Clinton campaign, many of whose high-value have hit the campaign spending limits, and a significant edge for the Obama movement's ability to raise millions in smaller donations.
Talk radio: The shock jocks of the US right have done a great deal to coarsen US debate over the last 20 years. But Rush Limbaugh has spent the last fortnight going ballistic to insist that John McCain (and indeed Mike Huckabee, for his economic populism) are betraying conservative America. They have been ignored. If your pitch is to be a self-apppinted and infallible populist voice of the people, it is a very big problem if the people stop listening.
Negative ads: From Lee Atwater's infamous WIllie Horton campaign attacks for Bush senior in 1988 to the swift boating of John Kerrey, there has been a sense of Democrats being helpless in the face of the evil genius of right-wing attack ads. But Romney has run a relentlessly negative textbook campaign - and it has failed. Overall, TV ads haven't had a fantastic impact or salience. There might not be an iconic campaign spot of 2008.
Personal attacks: There is no doubt that Bill Clinton's 'bad cop' routine damaged Hillary Clinton's campaign though, though it has also helped to polarise attitudes to voting around race and other demographic groups.
So what's going on? Are politics as usual losing their potency? I am not claiming that the remaining candidates are angels, but Perhaps this will turn out to be naively optimistic - and the candidates will go nuclear on each other from here on. Or an improved mood in 2008 might prove a one-off, another unusual feature of this most unusual race.
Perhaps. But it's worth considering the hypothesis that something bigger is going on. The public may be more media-savvy and sceptical than they were, so that techniques which seemed cutting-edge in the 1980s and 1990s now seem very dated.
And there is much greater scrutiny of what campaigns say - because of the scale of 24/7 media, and the ability of blogs to scrutinise and bite-back if dubious claims are made.
The sheer volume of coverage may mean that no future ad could ever have the sort of impact of LBJ's famous attack on Goldwater in 1964 or the Willie Horton ads of 1988. If voters don't want to be overwhelmed, they have to find their own filters. The Romney campaign changed messages too much for these to gain a resonance. Campaign themes and messages may matter less than voters' sense of a candidate's authenticity - that they embody the values and issues of their campaign.
While it will be a hard fought General Election, I think the tone of the contest could be rather more elevated than many people expect. John McCain was a victim of the politics of personal destruction in the Republican primaries of 2000. I don't think he is going to practice them in the General Election. And the Democrats would benefit from any sort of truce which could put the focus back onto the Games themselves.
As the Washington clocks strike twelve on 20th January 2009, listen carefully and you might just hear a swooshing sigh of relief travel around the world. The Bush Presidency will not leave the legacy its architects intended. But a critique of what should have been done differently since 2001 is not enough. This blog is about the new ideas which can create a 'new multilateralism' to tackle the global challenges we face.